In Case of Emergency, Read This Blog

In Case Of Emergency, Read Blog

A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

In New Book, Ridge Points Out Public’s “Homeland Helplessness”; Outlines Citizen Communications Goals He Hoped To Achieve — Which May Well Be Taken Up By Napolitano; Shares “Complacency” Concerns Expressed By Chertoff In His New Book

September 7th, 2009 · 2 Comments

Former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s new book has garnered headlines over questions whether some in the Bush Administration wanted him to raise the terror color alert for political reasons.

But a bigger theme (and, I would argue, a bigger deal) throughout the book is his frustration with the inability to have a frank and sustained dialogue with the American public about post-9/11 homeland security. The good news is that many of the objectives envisioned but not attained by Ridge when he was in charge and detailed in the book can — and may well — be taken up by the current Secretary Napolitano.

Ridge’s book, The Test Of Our Times: America Under Siege…And How We Can Be Safe Again (Thomas Dunne Books), written with Lary Bloom, was released on Tuesday. What initially struck me reading Test Of Our Times is how similar the themes and emphasis are — particularly when it comes to the public — to another book by a former DHS Secretary that was released Tuesday, Michael Chertoff’s Homeland Security The First Five Years. Chertoff also devotes a good deal of his book to encouraging government officials to engage and inform the citizenry in order to prevent complacency.

Ridge says he wrote his book in large part because “I’ve seen a sense of public complacency creep in.” Chertoff also writes in his about his similar concern about “complacency” and a return “to a September 10th mindset”. Further, Chertoff told me in an interview last month that he “wishes he could have done more” on citizen preparedness. Though Ridge doesn’t explicitly say so in his book, it comes through pretty clearly that he has some of the same regrets.

Ridge acknowledges the confusion that  Americans have had about their role in the nation’s homeland security since 9/11. In fact, he characterizes it memorably as “homeland helplessness”. And though I think he would agree that he did not address it nearly as well he would have hoped, Ridge does nicely lay out some useful ways that current leaders can try (ie. candid discussions with the public on topics like risk management and ‘dirty bombs’). The same significant challenges about the task — the novelty, complexity and sensitivity of the subjects in a highly-charged media and political environment — are still there as is the huge opportunity to capitalize on the largely untapped asset that is the American public. (Something that Napolitano has indicated an intention of doing.)

The Test of Our Times by Tom Ridge: Book Cover

In the book, Ridge writes that when he came to Washington after 9/11 as presidential homeland security adviser and then as head of the new cabinet department he wanted to “create a culture of sharing” both among agencies and the public and move from a “need to know” to “need to share” philosophy. He believed that communities and citizens “deserved more information about the conduct of our business and the rest of the administration as it effected them.”

Ridge describes how he and his chief public affairs aide, Susan Neely, envisioned their citizen communications approach:

“We needed to create a government office with a public information policy that would be groundbreaking. We would find a way to interpret frightening reports in a way that would motivate a sense of readiness and security without sounding like a horror movie. We would attempt to share as much information as possible, certainly more than government agencies were used to doing. The goal was unprecedented, and the task would prove more difficult than we realized.”

“An informed public is an engaged public and a good investment in the security of the community and the country. And informing the public required a new way of thinking and communicating and, I believed, now was the time to take up the task…Americans had a role to play, and to do so effectively, they needed to know more not less.”

But, Ridge writes, others in the Bush Administration did not share that same idea when it came to the public. He says some in the White House opposed the citizen awareness campaign, Ready.Gov, because it would have “little value or merit, but grudgingly let us proceed”. (He does note getting some satisfaction later on that Ready did gain some traction with the public and ultimately even First Lady Laura Bush did PSA’s on emergency preparedness.)

Ridge, like Chertoff, believes that there needs to be far more public understanding about the role of risk in homeland security. In the book, he uses the example of the ‘dirty bomb’ — a traditional explosive laced with radiation — which “though it will cause some deaths in the area of the explosion, is primarily a psychological weapon and a means to contaminate a large area.” Ridge raises a key question — that most experts I’ve spoken to believe the nation will face at some point in the future — how will we decide to deal with that contaminated area? (e.g. would we abandon all of downtown Manhattan?) He writes:

“If the measured level of contamination should turn out to be moderately higher than the existing federal health and environmental standard, but at a risk level that people were prepared to accept, would the government force them to leave? What level of additional health risk would citizens and communities be prepared to accept in order to maintain their communities?…If decontamination of the affected area could not reduce the danger of cancer death to one in ten-thousand, which means in a city of five hundred thousand an additional fifty deaths would occur, should we or would we abandon the city? And how could the government arrange for a trustworthy response devoid of panic and politics, with a clearly scared (and rightly so) population.”

Statistically, this is minimal. But it is not hard to imagine the media frenzy whipping the population into a panic…In the post -9/11 world, we need to be informed and realistic about the level of contamination we will accept. In such an attack, most of the casualties come well after the initial explosion. The difficulty is determining the subsequent level of contamination and its long-term physical and psychological effects on the population. We believed we could address these problems, but we were also left with major policy issues at various levels.”

Ridge lays this out in a clear, straightforward and provocative manner in the book. It leads to the obvious question — shouldn’t he have presented it this way to the public during his tenure? (I will ask Ridge when I interview him; I’m guessing he would answer ‘yes’ but cite some of the major obstacles he faced in doing so.) Again, the good news is that we haven’t been struck by that ‘dirty bomb’ (which Ridge would seem to deserve some credit for) so the fact is that the public still can and should get that type of briefing.

His use of the ‘dirty bomb’ to illustrate the need for public education reminded me of an interview I did with Steven Brill, a Ridge friend and sometime adviser, for the National Public Radio show “On The Media” in 2004. I asked Brill, who had written a book, After, on the period post-9/11 about how he would recommend the Secretary talk to the public and the media about the ‘dirty bomb’, a weapon whose psychological impact would probably be greater than its actual physical damage:

“The whole idea ought to be to just take that weapon out of the arsenal of the terrorists, and this is one situation where you can take the weapon away without spending money, without, you know, shooting people, and without two years of planning. If I were Tom Ridge and George Bush, I’d ask for a half-hour of network time to hold a teach-in about dirty bombs. The time to give that speech is now — not two hours after someone sets off one of these bombs and everybody’s panicked, because it’s not going to work then.”

Test Of Our Times seems to indicate that Ridge wanted to give that speech, but wouldn’t or couldn’t. In the book, he also offers some ideas on how to begin talking to the public about risk management and involving them in the tough decisionmaking on homeland security policy choices.

“Expecting our government to create a fail-safe, risk-free environment is not. As individuals or as a nation, our lives would be incalculably better if we could avoid tragedy. We cannot. As individuals and as a country, we accept the reality of the moment, deal with it as best we can, and move on…The question for our leaders, our policy makers and ourselves is: “How much security is enough?” At what point does the financial or philosophical cost exceed our willingness or ability to pay for it? Risk management involves making choices-tradeoffs.”

Though Ridge’s recommendations in the book are often made contemporaneous with the events he recounts, most apply just as much now. Typical is this recollection: “I felt we still had a lot to learn from Britain and Israel” on societal resilience. And, we still do.

Another obstacle Ridge faced was somewhat self-inflicted — what Ridge calls the “Duct Tape Debacle” when his recommendation on storing emergency supplies led to long lines at home supply stores and even more endless laugh lines from late night comics. “What would Leno, Letterman and O’Brien have done without me?” he writes. First of all, though it was ultimately the fault of Ridge and the Department for its clunky rollout of citizen preparedness advice, the incident was totally blown out of proportion by the press (and gave the nation an excuse to ignore what is viewed by many as an unpleasant topic). Second, it is a lesson to the current Administration that on a sensitive issue like preparedness you sometimes only get one first impression and any presentation to the public needs to be carefully planned and implemented — and must, I’m sure Ridge would concur, have commitment from the White House.

Ridge also did a national listening tour on public preparedness, organized by the Council For Excellence in Government, during which he heard first hand how perplexed Americans were about their role in homeland security — and how much education and dialogue was necessary. He writes, ”In San Diego, the father of a grade-school student said, ‘We were told by our son’s school that we should come up with a family evacuation plan, but it’s hard to come up with that if you don’t know what the school’s plan is in the event of an emergency.’”

Ridge observes correctly: ”Ordinary citizens were trying to figure out how to adjust to this new kind of threat, just as we were, and their interest could inform us…”There was no modern equivalent of a scrap-iron drive. It was as if this new kind of confrontation also created a new kind of homeland helplessness.”

I recommend the book to anyone interested in homeland security. Despite following the topic closely over the past eight years, I learned a number of things about key events and players — and particularly about Ridge’s actions and mindset during his tenure. As one of only three Homeland Security Secretaries in the nation’s history, he is clearly interested in continuing to have a say in the Department’s future.

In the book’s introduction, Ridge notes ”as we move farther in time from the mindset of 9/11 we will have lost our edge” and he makes this call to action: ”I want to persuade you to become a partner in a new kind of America, more alert and more willing to pitch in for the common good, but also more resilient.” The fact is that he was not able to accomplish that as Secretary, but I believe that Test Of Our Times helps the current occupant with her attempt to do so.

These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
  • Digg
  • Technorati

Tags: Preparedness Reports · Preparedness Resources

2 responses so far ↓

Leave a Comment