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Wednesday, 20 June 2012 14:20

Homeland Security in America: Past, Present, and Future

Written by  Roger L. Kemp, PhD

Eleven days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the first director of the Office of Homeland Security was appointed by the president to head this new department, which was located in the White House. This office oversaw and coordinated a comprehensive national strategy to safeguard the country against terrorism and respond to any future attacks. A year later, with the passage of the Homeland Security Act by Congress in November, 2002, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) formally came into being as a stand-alone, cabinet-level, department to further coordinate and unify national homeland security efforts, opening its doors on March 1, 2003. This new department integrated all or part of 22 different Federal departments and agencies into a single, unified, and integrated department.

Since this time, only a little more than a decade ago, our nation has seen the initiation and implementation of two national warning systems, the most recent of which was launched in April of last year. We’ve also seen the emergence of several emergency and disaster-related citizen support groups, designed to serve law enforcement agencies and first responders at all levels of government – city, county, state, and federal. Furthermore, we’ve seen critical information being placed on government Web sites for public officials, first responders, as well as citizens in general. This information has become more sophisticated in recent years and continues to be improved upon. Federal government agencies are even entering the world of social media to further inform young people and citizens about how to prepare and respond to disasters and emergencies of all kinds.

These events, which continue to unfold in the dynamic and evolving field of homeland security, are highlighted below. To properly cover this field it is presented under the headings of national warning systems, citizen assistance and support groups, and homeland security and the future. This paper describes state-of-the-art trends in this field to help public officials and first responders as they become educated to better serve the public. After all, the goals of all government officials during times of emergencies and disasters throughout history has always been to reduce the loss of life and property. While this is still the goal, the processes and mechanisms to achieve it has become more sophisticated and are described below for your information.

National Warning Systems

In order to improve coordination and communication among all levels of government and the public in the fight against terrorism, the president signed Homeland Security Presidential Directive 3 in March of 2002, creating the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS). This advisory system served as the foundation for a common sense approach for a simple communications structure for the dissemination of information regarding the risk of possible terrorist attacks to all levels of government as well as our nation’s citizens. It was replaced by the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) in April of 2011. Both the HSAS and NTAS are explained below.

There are many federal alert systems in America, and each is tailored and unique to different sectors of our society: transportation, defense, agriculture, and weather, for example. These alert systems provide vital and specific requirements for a variety of emergency situations for all levels of government, nonprofit organizations, and commercial sectors.

The HSAS provided a national framework for these systems, allowing government officials and citizens to communicate the nature and degree of terrorist threats with
five color-coded threat conditions:

  • Green: low condition
  • Blue: guarded condition
  • Yellow: elevated condition
  • Orange: high condition
  • Red: severe condition

NTAS replaced HSAS. The new warning system is designed to communicate information about terrorist threats by providing timely detailed information to the public, government agencies, first responders, airports, and other transportation hubs, as well as the private and nonprofit sectors. The new advisory system recognizes that Americans all share responsibility for the nation’s security, and that they should always be aware of the heightened risk of terrorist attack in the U. S. and what should be done to prepare and respond to disasters and emergencies.

The new national alert system is designed to warn public officials and citizens of a credible terrorist threat against the U.S. These alters will include a statement that there is an imminent or elevated threat. Using available information, the alerts will provide a concise summary of the potential threat; information about actions being taken to ensure public safety; and recommended steps that individuals, communities, businesses, and governments can take to help prevent, mitigate, or respond to the threat.

All NTAS alters, the secretary states, will be based on the nature of the threat. In some cases, alerts will be sent directly to law enforcement agencies or affected areas of the private sector, while in others alerts will be issued more broadly to the American people through both official and media channels. National alerts under this system also contain a sunset provision. That is, an individual threat alert will be issued for a specific time period, and then it will automatically expire. It may be extended if new information becomes available or if the threat evolves. Also, as threat information changes, the secretary will announce updated alerts. Updated alerts will be distributed the same way as the original alerts were to ensure that the same public officials and citizens receive the updated information.

Details of the alert have been standardized, and the secretary will follow a uniform alert format that contains a summary of the alert, indicating whether an imminent or elevated threat is likely. Each alert statement will also note a duration, after which it either expires or is extended by DHS. The next section of the alert notes details of the actual or pending threat, as well as a description of the affected geographic areas and the sectors involved. Finally, the last section of the new national alert document will describe how the public can help authorities, how public officials and citizens should plan for the emergency, and how public officials and citizens can stay informed. These new warnings also include instructions on how public officials and citizens can get additional information, the role of public safety and community leaders, as well as links to appropriate DHS websites.

The new national alert system is based on the recommendations of a bipartisan task force of security experts, state and local elected and law enforcement officials, and other key stakeholders who assessed the effectiveness of the previous national color-coded alert system. The results of this nation-wide assessment, initiated by the Secretary of DHS, formed the basis of our nation’s new National Terrorism Advisory System (commonly referred to as NTAS). Last, DHS encourages citizens to follow NTAS alerts for information about threats and take an active role in security by reporting suspicious activity to local law enforcement authorities through the “If You See Something, Say Something” public awareness campaign.

Citizen Assistance and Support Groups

Since Sept. 11, 2001, and the formation of our nation’s newest federal department, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), several citizen assistance and support groups have evolved, related directly or indirectly to the new and evolving field of homeland security. The chapters of these groups are virtually in every state, and they work closely with the sponsoring and/or supporting federal agency. The federal agencies involved with these groups include the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). These eight citizen assistance and support groups are highlighted and explain below. It would behoove public officials to know which groups are located in their community so that, when an emergency or disaster takes place, they can take advantage of the volunteer services available from the organizations within their own community.

  • Citizen Corps (CC) – Following the tragic event of Sept. 11, 2001, state and local government officials have increased opportunities for citizens to become involved in protecting their homeland and supporting local first responders. This group was launched by President Bush in January 2002, four months after the terrorist attack. Citizen Corps was created to help coordinate volunteer activities that will make communities safer and better prepared to respond to emergencies. Citizens receive training in first aid and emergency skills and volunteer to assist local first responders. This group has more than 1,200 chapters nationally. This program is coordinated by the U.S. DHS.
  • Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) – This program educates citizens about disaster preparedness and trains them in basic disaster response skills such as fire safety, light search and rescue practices, and disaster medical operations. Using their training, CERT members assist others in their neighborhood or workplace following an event and take a more active role in preparing their community for both natural and man-made emergencies. This group has more than 1,900 chapters throughout the nation. This program is also administered by FEMA.
  • Fire Corps (FC) – This program promotes the use of citizen advocates to enhance the capacity of resource-constrained fire and rescue departments at all levels of public service, including volunteer, combination, and career. Citizen advocates assist local fire departments in a range of activities including fire safety outreach, youth programs, and administrative support services. Fire Corps provides resources to assist fire and rescue departments in creating opportunities for citizen advocates and promotes citizen participation. This group has nearly 1,100 chapters throughout the country. It is funded through DHS and is managed through a partnership between the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC).
  • USAonWatch (USAOW) – This group includes Neighborhood Watch Programs (NWP) throughout the nation. This program works to provide information, training, and resources to citizens and law enforcement agencies throughout the country. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, NWP have expanded beyond their traditional crime prevention role to help neighborhoods focus on disaster preparedness, emergency response, and terrorism awareness. These groups also go by many other names such as Crime Watch, Block Watch, and Business Watch, and they have thousands of chapters in neighborhoods located in cities throughout America. USAonWatch-Neighborhood Watch is administered by the National Sheriff’s Association (NSA) in partnership with the Bureau of Justice (BOJ), U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
  • Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) – This program’s purpose is to strengthen communities by helping medical, public health, and other volunteers offer their expertise throughout the year as well as during local emergencies and other types of community need. MRC volunteers work in coordination with existing local emergency response programs and also supplement existing public health initiatives such as outreach and prevention, immunization programs, blood drives, case management, care planning, and other efforts. This program, which has nearly a thousand chapters throughout the nation, is administered by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
  • Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS) – The VIPS program provides support and resources for state and local law enforcement agencies interested in developing and/or enhancing a volunteer program and for citizens who wish to volunteer their time and skills with a law enforcement agency. The program’s ultimate goal is to enhance the capacity of these law enforcement agencies to use citizen volunteers. There are more than 2,200 VIPS chapters nationally. This program is funded by the U.S. DOJ and managed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), Office of Justice Programs (OJP), in the DOJ.
  • Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) – CNCS promotes volunteer service initiatives and activities that support homeland security and community safety. They are a federal agency that operates nationwide service programs such as AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and Learn and Serve America, among others. Participants in these programs may support Citizen Corps Council activities by helping to establish training and information delivery systems for neighborhoods, schools, and businesses, and by helping with family preparedness and crime prevention initiatives in a single community or across an entire region. There are virtually tens of thousands of citizens that participate in these national, federally-sponsored programs. This organization is coordinated nationally by the U.S. DHS.
  • InfraGard (IG) – InfraGard is an information sharing and analysis effort, serving the interests and combining the knowledge base of a wide range of members. At the most basic level, it is a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the private sector. It is an association of businesses, academic institutions, state and local law enforcement agencies, and other participants who are dedicated to sharing information and intelligence to prevent hostile acts against the U.S., primarily its cyber and public infrastructures. Their chapters are linked with 56 FBI field office territories. They have more than 47,000 members throughout the nation. This program is administered nationally by the FBI.

Homeland Security and the Future

The new field of homeland security is both dynamic and evolving! It has impacted public officials and citizens in local and state governments throughout the nation in many ways and continues to do so. Our nation has a new national warning system, the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS), and several community and regional citizen groups that are now actively involved in homeland security, emergency management, and assisting first responders in their job responsibilities. It behooves local public officials, especially first responders, to know about these groups, and the services that they provide, especially when they are located within their own community.

There is a greater level of engagement and involvement among law enforcement agencies and between other first responders in city, county, state, and federal governments. There are now more meetings and disaster exercises that involve different levels of government, both separately and jointly, than ever before in our nation’s history. Also, everyone from public officials to first responders has an expanding awareness of the services available from local and regional nonprofit organizations. The practices and influence of first responders have been greatly influenced in recent years by both nonprofit and profit sector organizations. It is critical for public officials to know the resources and services available to them when they respond to emergencies and disasters, either natural or man-made.

Lastly, the field of homeland security has influenced the layout and construction of public buildings and facilities at all levels of government. Current and future government buildings will likely not provide underground public parking. In many cases, land permitting, public parking is provided away from public buildings and facilities. Also, vehicular access to public buildings it limited for obvious reasons. The heating and air conditioning systems in public buildings are also no longer accessible by the public from ground floors or other exterior locations. Citizen access to such systems is now restricted for security reasons. Lastly, many government buildings are being designed to fit in with their surrounding community. After all, you don’t want them to be the largest and tallest buildings in the downtown area for obvious reasons.

Citizen Assistance and Support Group Web sites

  • Citizen Corps (CC) – http://citizencorps.gov/
  • Citizen Emergency Response Team (CERT) – http://citizencorps.gov/cert/
  • Fire Corps (FC) – http://www.firecorps.org/
  • USAonWatch (USAOW) – http://www.usaonwatch.org/
  • Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) – http://www.medicalreservecorps.gov/
  • Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS) – http://www.policevolunteers.org/
  • Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS) – http://www.serve.gov/
  • InfraGard (IG) – http://www.infragard.net/

Federal Government Websites

  • Customs and Border Protection (CBP) – http://cbp.gov/
  • Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – http://www.dhs.gov/
  • Disaster Assistance Programs (DAP) – http://www.disasterassistance.gov/
  • Emergency Preparedness for Citizens (EPS) – http://www.ready.gov/
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – http://www.fema.gov/
  • First Responder Information (FRI) – http://www.dhs.gov/xfrstresp/
  • National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) – http://www.dhs.gov/files/programs/ntas.shtm
  • Transportation Security Administration (TSA) – http://www.tsa.gov/

Roger L. Kemp, PhD, is a career city manager, having served in California, New Jersey, and Connecticut. He is the editor of Homeland Security: Best Practices for Local Government (Int’l City/County Management Assn., 2010). Dr. Kemp served on the USDOJ’s Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council and was appointed by the governor to the Homeland Security Working Group, State of Connecticut. He can be reached via email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..