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A new report on national security warns that the United States is dangerously unprepared to prevent or react to catastrophic acts of terrorism. It bluntly points out that "a direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter century" and calls for a drastic overhaul of the country's national security structure at the very top level of the federal government.
The report was issued by the U.S. Commission on National Security, a nonpartisan group appointed by Congress and headed by former senators Warren Rudman (R-NH) and Gary Hart (D-CO). The commission includes former defense secretaries, other ex-cabinet officers, retired military commanders, diplomats, members of Congress and corporate executives.
The commission did not include representatives from state or local governments, police or the fire-rescue service. While emphasizing the role of the military, the report also recognizes the role local authorities play in responding to acts of terrorism. It gives "first priority" to building up local resources and increasing their capacity to deal with the problem. Hopefully, if the commission's recommendations are ever implemented, fire-rescue experts would have some input and influence on planning and decision-making.
"We fully understand the role of civil authorities," Rudman told Firehouse®, "but there has to be a national effort to make sure local medical, fire-rescue and law enforcement are able to play their roles … There's a need for a different level of training." (It should be noted that Rudman was a highly respected senator and served as a combat infantry officer in the Korean War.)
There have been previous studies dealing with the threat from bombings, chemical and biological incidents; but this report also considers the aftermath of a catastrophic attack, such as a thermo-nuclear device that destroys an entire section of a major city. In that type of worst-case scenario, local fire, police and medical resources would themselves be casualties and unable to function. They would need massive outside help from the federal government - especially the regular Army and the National Guard. In Rudman's view, no one is presently capable of carrying out that mission.
The report calls for the creation of a new cabinet-level department to be known as the National Homeland Security Agency. It would bring together the Coast Guard, Customs Service, Border Patrol and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) into one agency responsible for coordinating the defense against terrorism and the emergency response. Since the first line of defense is accurate intelligence on terrorist activities, it's presumed that the new agency would receive all available information from the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency and other intelligence operations - though that has not always been a safe presumption.
The commission is brutally critical of the uncoordinated bureaucratic maze that now exists with dozens of federal agencies involved in the anti-terrorism effort. They propose radical reforms inside the Department of Defense, National Security Council, State Department and congressional committees, as well as doubling the amount of federal funds spent on research for science and technology. The last national security reorganization of this magnitude occurred more than 50 years ago, when the Department of Defense and CIA were created after World War II.
As this is written, it's too soon to determine the reaction in Washington and within the fire-rescue service. However, one area of agreement will come from fire chiefs who have testified before congressional committees on the terrorism problem and expressed their concerns that the federal effort has suffered from a lack of coordination.
Andrew White, manager of counter-terrorism programs for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), points out that many of the commission's recommendations are consistent with findings in other reports that have analyzed the problem. "Creating a new federal agency raises some questions," White said, "but we fully support and advocate focusing the preparedness effort and coordinating it across many agencies."
In White's view, there have to be clear goals and timetables in preparing for the response to acts of terrorism. Many fire departments are better prepared today than they were five years ago, but many have not made significant progress since the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombings. "The problems have been identified and some steps have been taken," White explained, "… but you can't measure progress if you don't have goals in sight."
The big question is whether this report will have a real impact or merely be another document that gathers dust after a brief flurry of interest. But it comes at a time when a new administration and a new Congress may be receptive to new ideas. As we reported last month, the Bush administration is giving priority to national security issues and the threat of terrorism. Rudman and other commission members already have met with Secretary of State Colin Powell and members of Congress; they expect to meet with more top officials, including President Bush.
For now, the fire-rescue service has to keep a close watch on how this report is received by Congress and the White House. It's also essential that the new people taking over key posts in the Bush administration be "educated" so they understand that firefighters are the first responders to terrorism and every other disaster.
At the same time, every fire department has to continue to prepare for that response. We've seen how terrorists can strike anywhere in the world, but this latest report is another warning that America's cities are the biggest and most vulnerable targets. It should cause every fire chief to answer a basic question: Is your department trained and ready to respond to an act of terrorism?
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.