Newswise — Without question we are safer today than we were ten years ago.
That is according to Dr. Robert S. Fleming, professor of management at Rowan University (Glassboro, N.J.) and a nationally recognized authority on emergency preparedness.
Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Fleming has been interviewed by numerous television, radio and print media outlets on a variety of topics related to our nation’s vulnerability to domestic terrorism and our growing level of preparedness to address the ever-present reality of terrorism within the contemporary world.
As we approach the10-year anniversary of the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, Fleming has provided the following responses to typical questions from the media. Reporters are welcome to use and credit this material as appropriate in related news stories and coverage.
Fleming has been actively involved in fire and emergency management for more than 40 years, serving in numerous operational and administrative positions, including that of fire chief. His professional activities have included serving on the National Fire Academy (NFA) Board of Visitors for 13 years, including six years as vice chairman and six years as chairman. He currently serves as the chairman of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Fire Service Certification Advisory Committee and the Chester County Local Emergency Planning Committee.
The primary focus of his research, teaching and consulting has been on enhancing organizational effectiveness, with an emphasis on local, county, state, regional and national fire and emergency service organizations. Fleming has five earned master’s degrees, including a Master of Government Administration from the Fels Center of Government of the University of Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and has completed the Senior Executives in National and International Security Program at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. His most recent books are Effective Fire and Emergency Services Administration (2010) and Survival Skills for the Fire Chief (2011).
1. How prepared were we for a terrorist attack prior to September 11, 2001?While a reasonable degree of analysis based on after-action reports of the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 led to significant enhancements in our nation’s ability to respond to a domestic terrorist attack, the reality of the four separate but interrelated and well-planned aircraft hijackings on September 11, 2001, clearly and convincingly illustrated that we were not prepared to prevent such attacks. Our failure to prevent these attacks was characterized by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (commonly referred to as The 9/11 Commission) as a lack of imagination in understanding and institutionalization. It is obvious that our intelligence gathering, processing and dissemination at that time failed to enable us to prevent these tragic attacks on our nation, its government and its people.
2. In what areas were there recognized deficiencies in our preparedness prior to September 11, 2001?A number of deficiencies in our nation’s preparedness had been identified and were being addressed prior to September 11, 2001. A major deficiency was the lack of interagency communication, cooperation and collaboration. This presented itself as a fragmented system wherein there were disconnects between local, state and federal government agencies that rather than operating as cooperative partners typically operated in isolation of each other. These disconnects unfortunately existed all too often both between and within the various levels of government with responsibilities for terrorism preparedness. A second major deficiency involved the lack of interoperability of radio communication systems utilized by public safety personnel, resulting in an inability for first responders to engage in vital radio communications with those from different disciplines or jurisdictions operating at major emergency incidents, including those resulting from acts of domestic terrorism. A third deficiency was the lack of a universal incident management system and the provision of appropriate training in its use to all response disciplines. Lastly, there were identified needs for personnel protective equipment for responders and other types of apparatus and equipment.
3. What did we learn about the threat of terrorism and our vulnerability on September 11, 2001?The tragic events of September 11, 2001, while consistent with the conventional wisdom that the targets of attacks would typically include controversial businesses, historical sites, infrastructure systems, places of assembly, public buildings and symbolic targets, revealed a number of important lessons with respect to preventing such attacks in the future. While governmental agencies and businesses had engaged in fairly significant planning activities, a number of the constructs of that planning changed on September 11, 2001. Prior planning initiatives had been based on traditional means of attack delivery, such as parking a truck loaded with explosives in a parking garage, rather than the unimaginable hijacking of commercial aircraft loaded with unsuspecting passengers and significant fuel loads and use of the same airplanes that we take for granted in a contemporary world as instruments of domestic terrorism. We also learned on that tragic day that attacks can happen anywhere, as evidenced by the airplane that was brought down in the rural area near Shanksville, Pa.
4. What has been done to enhance our preparedness since September 11, 2001?Progress has been made to address each of the recognized deficiencies discussed above. The establishment of the Department of Homeland Security was intended to address the issues of interagency communication, cooperation and collaboration. Additionally the Department of Homeland Security has made much progress in aligning its efforts with those of other federal agencies, including the Department of Defense and Department of Justice, and corresponding state agencies. The National Incident Management System (NIMS) has been developed and implemented across the nation, and necessary training in this system’s use has been provided. NIMS is designed as a command and control tool to enhance the effectiveness, efficiency and safety of incident management. Significant progress has been made in increasing the interoperability of public safety radio communications systems. A number of federal grant programs have supported planning initiatives, training and acquisition of necessary apparatus and equipment.
5. How did the establishment of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security contribute to an enhanced level of preparedness?The establishment of the Department of Homeland Security was an integral step in enhancing our nation’s capabilities with respect to combating domestic terrorism. Prior to the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security there were 22 separate federal agencies that had varying responsibilities with respect to domestic terrorism. While experiencing the expected dynamics and growing pains of any reorganization, the Department of Homeland Security — to the credit of all of the men and women within its leadership, operational and support ranks — has made tremendous progress in enhancing our nation’s preparedness in many areas and has emphasized terrorism preparedness in the great majority of its endeavors.
6. Are we safer today than we were ten years ago?Without question we are safer today than we were ten years ago. The enhancements in our intelligence capabilities provide an essential foundation. The establishment of regional intelligence (“fusion”) centers has provided the underpinning infrastructure for the necessary gathering, evaluation and dissemination of information, as well as information-based decision making and action. The public, as well as public safety organizations, now play a key role in identifying and reporting possible suspicious activity. Public safety and other governmental agencies are now “on the same page” and working in an unprecedented cooperative and collaborative mode. In summary, we as a nation have embraced the threat of domestic terrorism and taken ownership. Our vigilance, resolve and resilience have greatly enhanced our national security today and will continue to do so in the future.
7. How has the threat of domestic terrorism changed over the past 10 years?If the intent of terrorists is to create a climate of fear and intimidation, that goal was accomplished on September 11, 2001. Those living in the United States, as well as those in nations around the world, woke up to a new reality that morning. Through the media we all experienced the tragic events at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in a rural field in western Pennsylvania. It was now in the “minds and hearts” of most that our world and our nation would never be the same safe and secure places we once took for granted.
8. What new threats with respect to domestic terrorism exist today?We now recognize that the traditional targets of the terrorists have now been supplemented so as to include both “hard targets” and “soft targets.” The cast of characters who would seek to invoke harm through acts of domestic terrorism has grown to include not only state actors and non-state actors but also the “homegrown” terrorist. We have expanded our thinking, through the use of imagination, to appreciate the potential for traditional attacks of an explosive or incendiary nature as well as those involving biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. The instability that exists in particular regions of the world today has the potential of impacting our national security in the coming years.
9. How have the targets of domestic terrorism changed?While traditional targets of terrorism such as controversial businesses, historical sites, infrastructure systems, places of assembly, public buildings and symbolic targets continue to represent desired targets of terrorists, it is realistic to expect that there may be an increase in attempted attacks of “soft targets,” particularly as the more traditional targets have hardened their ability to defend themselves against terrorist attacks.
10. How have the perpetrators of terrorism changed?The bilateral world that existed during the Cold War has been replaced with a transnational world wherein a growing number of countries seek to advance their goals through a continuum of means, including in some cases committing acts of terrorism against other nations and peoples. While such state actors will continue to present future concerns in terms of domestic and international terrorism, they have been joined on the stage by a growing number of non-state actors, represented by various well-known and little-known terrorist groups, as well as “homegrown” terrorists. A significant issue with such individual or small group actors is identifying them and tracking their activities.
11. How has the role of the public changed with respect to domestic preparedness?Without question, one of the most important lessons that we have learned with respect to domestic terrorism is the integral role that the public plays with respect to the prevention of domestic terrorism. Shortly after being appointed as the first Homeland Security Secretary, Tom Ridge clearly articulated this important role of the public when he encouraged the public to be “vigilant” and to report any suspicious acts or behaviors to the appropriate authorities. This message has been echoed by his successors as well as elected and appointed officials at all levels of government. The importance of this role of the public is evidenced by the numerous planned attacks that have been prevented based on the astute observation and reporting by citizens.
12. What role will social media play with respect to terrorism in the future?The presence and use of social media has revolutionized our world and how individuals, groups and organizations communicate. There are potential benefits as well as harm that could come from social media with respect to domestic and international terrorism. Many governmental agencies now use social media tools to communicate with the public in issuing educational information, notifications and alerts. These same capabilities that recently have been used in emergencies such as earthquakes and hurricanes pave the way to use these communication capabilities for information/intelligence gathering and dissemination with respect to suspected or actual terrorist activity. The downside, however, is that terrorists can likewise avail themselves of social media tools to advance their cause and facilitate their activities.
13. What new challenges with respect to domestic terrorism are we likely to face over the next 10 years?While the threat of domestic terrorism is likely to remain an ever-present threat in the future, we must recognize that the nature of both domestic and international terrorism will continue to evolve. While it is unlikely that any country will be capable of eliminating the terrorist threat and accompanying vulnerability of the contemporary world, it is essential that we continue to build our capabilities and resilience with respect to domestic terrorism. Our domestic preparedness in the future will thus require that we fully embrace — and as appropriate address — issues and events related to international terrorism that have the real and proven potential of compromising our national security.
14. What is the greatest worldwide threat that we will face in the coming years?Most authorizes are in agreement that while the potential threats of terrorism will continue to include biological, chemical, explosive and incendiary attacks, the greatest worldwide threat that we will face in future years is that of nuclear terrorism. This has thus become a focus of the international community through such strategies as containment, elimination and deterrence. The focus with respect to preventing the use of nuclear weapons as an instrument of terrorism must be to prevent those actors who would intend to use these catastrophic weapons from gaining access to the weapons or the necessary materials to construct them.
15. What steps do we need to take to further enhance our preparedness in the future?Many of the actions discussed above represent the essential early steps in our pilgrimage of defending our national security and that of our allies around the world. Our elected and appointed leaders need to never fail to remember the vivid images of the attacks on our nation on September 11, 2001, and continue to commit their talent, energy and passion to combating domestic terrorism, regardless of its source, on American soil. In doing so, these leaders must put politics aside and, based on the lessons learned from past and future attacks around the world, ensure that our nation’s capabilities and resilience to prevent future domestic attacks are measured and proportional to the scope and magnitude of the threats we face in the present and will inherit in the future.