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Homeland Security 2012: From Terrorism to Public Safety to Small Business, Technology Infuses Change

March 2, 2012
By Maryann Lawlor
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Resilience is more important than ever in the face of changes that are occurring throughout the government and range from responding to crises to working with small businesses. The indisputable largest development is the budget constraints originating in the federal government and trickling down to state and local governments as well as companies. But increased care in planning and a commitment to getting the job done in innovative ways meet these changes head on and not only will sustain organizations but in many cases will enable them to grow.

Topics discussed during the final day of the AFCEA International Homeland Security Conference spanned from a candid assessment of today’s terrorist activity to the role of social media in the government, in a crisis and in sharing information. Despite booming technological changes, speakers and panelists agreed on one often-quoted lyric: The times they are a-changin’.

Charles E. Allen, former undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, DHS, stated that the United States and its allies made much progress in fighting terrorism during this century’s first decade. “We have really taken this war to the leadership. It’s very damaged,” Allen related.

Despite eliminating many al-Qaida leaders, “We cannot declare victory,” he warned. Al-Qaida Iraq appears to be reinventing itself, and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has become one of the most dangerous groups.

While the number of terrorist groups residing in the U.S. is small, he has concerns about immigrants who have entered the United States in the past 20 years, he added.

Allen also spoke about the need for improving resilience after an attack, and recent legislation in the public safety arena aims to bring that about. H.R. 3630 Title VI of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act signed into law late last month, facilitated the upcoming creation of the Public Safety Interoperability Board. Funding for the work the law enables total $7 billion, which will be put into a public safety trust fund. Approximately $2 billion will be available for spending prior to the spectrum auctions the law allows.

Requests for proposals are due out shortly. NIST’s initial funding for research and develop totals $100 million and may increase to $200 million if financial results from the spectrum auction exceed $27.6 billion. In addition, the NTIA will receive a $115 million grant to bring about next-generation 9-1-1 services.

To drive home the financial importance of H.R. 3630 Title VI to industry, Dan Phython, division chief, Office of Emergency Communications, said, “If you can’t figure out that this is pure gold, go check with your doctor.”

Social media also has proved to be a gold mine of information, panelists discussing the topic pointed out. When first arriving on the scene, capabilities such as Facebook and Twitter appeared to be mere techie toys for sharing personal messages in a large forum. Today, however, these same tools—and new ones such as Skype and QR codes—have taken a turn toward the serious as government agencies use them to warn the public of danger, share tips on government-related financial opportunities and act as a trusted source to confirm iffy information that’s gone viral.

The timing of a discussion about the privacy and civil liberty protection in social media could not have been better as experts discussed this topic the day that Google announced changes to its policies. However, Alexander W. Joel, civil liberties protection officer, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, pointed out that while change is inevitable, the rules about the right to privacy—outlined in the U.S. Constitution—still apply.

To ensure that government agencies follow these rules when using social media to assist the public during a crisis, Joel emphasized that they must make sure to remain true to their mission and share only information—with the public as well as each other—that can and should be shared.

Although policies are in place to protect the public’s privacy, social media is increasing the amount of data available to peruse exponentially, Bruce Walker, acting vice president, homeland/civil/regulatory/international ICT, Northrop Grumman Corporation, pointed out.

If government agencies responsible for protecting U.S. citizens are supposed to use this information judiciously, how can they comb through it without affecting civil liberties, Walker asked. Joel replied that members of the intelligence community continue to work to “smooth out” their information-sharing processes. “It’s not like you have a great big database in the sky. Instead, you have a series of relationships that facilitate information sharing,” Joel said.

And smooth information-sharing processes especially are crucial in the National Capital Region, Chief Cathy Lanier and Fire Chief James F. Schwartz emphasized during the “Fireside Chat” that took place as part of the Thursday luncheon. Lanier is the chief of police for the District of Columbia and Schwartz is the chief of the Arlington County Fire Department, Arlington, Virginia.

The challenges that both of these leaders face include responsibilities in multijurisdictional regions, and these, they agreed, require planning, training and trusted relationships.

Lanier’s method for addressing these requirements include creating and maintaining close ties with the leaders of all the jurisdictions she may need to call on when crises occur. “You need to have everyone who would be involved in an incident on speed-dial. I’m not kidding about that. You need to be able to get in touch with them quickly,” she advised. “You also need to know immediately in a situation who’s in charge, so that when you arrive on a scene there’s no question about who’s leading the response.”

Schwartz agreed with Lanier and added that it is important to develop leaders from within the organization as the relationships with regional decision makers progress. Creating one-on-one firm connections but not sharing them within the organization will mean that knowledge capital is lost when leaders leave their post, he said.

Creating steady relationships with other organizations also is important in developing a small business, panelists discussing how to obtain business from the DHS agreed. Entrepreneurs should take advantage of conferences and other networking events to make human connections in small groups.

Experts from both small and large businesses agreed that the first step for any start-up is “deciding what you want to be when you grow up very quickly.” With that in mind, small business owners should research the needs of large corporations and government agencies then come to the able with specific solutions to explain to business development managers and procurement officers.

They also pointed out that teaming with a large company can get a small business into the opportunity door, but entrepreneurs should make sure the companies they hope to team with have their best interests in mind—whether because they offer a niche solution or seek to be acquired eventually—and not those that are simply filling the need for a small business on a team to win a specific contract.