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Public Safety And The Fear Fortress

The Granite Mountain Hotshots, specialized firefighters in Arizona, were battling the Yarnell Hill fire on June 30th when the confluence of a thunderstorm and dangerous winds were headed their way. Procedures are typically in place to handle this type of situation, there were attempts to communicate with the Hotshots to move their location. Issues with communications seems to have played a role when all 19 firefighters were killed. Apparently this wasn’t a new issue, according to an NY Times story, Forest Service employees across the West repeatedly complained about problems with communications, in some cases pleading that malfunctions be fixed before something terrible happened.

For some time I have been concerned the United States government and private sector have diverted resources and attention away from preparing for a response to a man-made or natural disaster that will assuredly come, like wildfires. Instead, we seem all too vigilantly focused on the unknown, a possible terrorist attack.

Terrorism is frightening, we don’t know where, when or if an attack might happen, we just know that there are those willing to harm citizens of the United States. The psychological damage from a terrorist attack is significant and can’t be understated. The psychology of the fear of terrorism has been analyzed, published and talked about extensively. While we are building layers of security around anything that might be vulnerable to an attack, we do not acknowledge how much of a role our fear plays in building our fortress vs the reality of actually being involved in a terrorist attack.

Somehow, we have become immune or complacent in our reaction to everyday disasters that plague us--whether man-made or by nature. For instance, homicides are the second most common cause of death among children, are we circling layers of protection around our kids? I haven’t noticed the same intensity of reaction. These deaths slowly creep upon us statistically throughout the year, and we are fairly certain it won’t be our children that succumb to such a tragedy.

Jibum Chung from the Brooking Institute argues that we have eroded our civil protection—which protects us from natural and manmade disasters and other public safety issues—for civil defense against terrorism.

The cost of that shift in priorities was on full display when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, easily destroying the weak levee system and submerging much of New Orleans under water. Federal and local governments’ mitigation, response and recovery to the Hurricane Katrina were mostly inadequate – resulting in the most severe disaster damage in U.S. history at that time. Due to budget cuts, the Army Corps of Engineers had been unable to strengthen the levee system protecting New Orleans. After the flooding and other damage occurred, the governments’ disaster situation awareness was poor. Communication among authorities and between authorities and civilians was broken. Assistance from the federal government was delayed and insufficient, and people died while awaiting rescue or other assistance. Critics also charged that too many government officials were not familiar with the “National Response Plan” which was implemented in December 2004 after 9/11 terrorist attack. Planning and training for large natural disasters were insufficient after the implementation of the plan. In short, too great a focus on counter-terrorism undermined capacities for natural disaster mitigation, response, and recovery in the post-9/11 United States.

How can we create a balance between our civil defense and civil protection? There is no perfect scenario where the US government national security complex can predict and disrupt every single terrorist attack. Which means our strength lies in how our emergency management professionals can respond in the aftermath of an attack. We can put to good use the technological advances that we have achieved over the past 10 years for civil protection in a reasoned, thoughtful way to protect public safety and interests.

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