Is America Prepared for Disaster?


May 30, 2007

This commentary originally appeared on on May 30, 2007.

How prepared is America for the next terrorist attack or natural disaster?

Government and the private sector have spent billions of dollars since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in an effort to make America more secure. The money for this ramped up security has come from all of us, collected in the taxes we pay and in higher prices for the goods we buy.

Ordinary citizens see the extra security when we encounter more barricades around buildings, have to remove our shoes at airport security screenings and see extra security guards at shopping malls.

Far less visible measures have been implemented as well. For example, governments at all levels have prepared new emergency response plans, formed new response teams and outfitted them with equipment.

But despite all this, there is no satisfactory answer to a very basic question: are we prepared enough? Simply measuring how much America spends on homeland security won't answer the question. It's important to determine if the money is spent wisely and effectively.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, members of both political parties in Congress have questioned America's level of emergency preparedness. That questioning helped prompt the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

When a disaster strikes, the country depends on a national response system made up of organizations at all levels of government, non-governmental groups, the private sector and the public to respond. It is all too obvious when that system cannot respond adequately to meet victims' needs. Nothing illustrated this more dramatically than the failure to respond quickly and effectively to the tragic suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina.

While it's easy to see what happens when things go wrong, it's hard to know before disaster strikes what needs to be done to make sure things will go right. Indeed, some have argued that because the emergency response system is so complex, there is no way to gauge if we are prepared until after disaster strikes.

When attempting to determine our level of preparedness, we make the mistake of focusing on what we have done to become more prepared. For example, we discuss new equipment purchases for first responders, or describe preparedness exercises to examine how the response system performs when tested by a simulated emergency. These things are certainly important, but they are the ingredients for preparedness — not the final product.

What we really need to know is: Will the whole system work when a disaster strikes?

One way that a city can measure how prepared it is for one type of emergency that happens somewhere every day — house fires — is to determine the average time it takes a fire truck to get to the scene when it is called. Based on these findings, city officials can decide how confident they are in their level of fire protection and then make resource allocation decisions to save lives and property.

Assessing preparedness for a major disaster or a terrorist attack is much more complicated than calculating how quickly fire trucks can get to the scene, but it is not impossible.

The Pentagon faces similar concerns in assessing whether U.S. forces can respond to the wide range of contingencies that could happen across the world. For example, during and immediately after the Cold War, American officials had to decide if the nation was "prepared enough" for everything from small-scale conflict to nuclear war.

U.S. leaders do not wait for war to break out to gauge if the American armed forces could defend the nation. Instead, they invest in analytical and other approaches to measure readiness and make it possible to reasonably judge preparedness against a variety of threats.

Much of the work done at the RAND Corporation and other institutions during the Cold War focused on answering questions about America's preparedness for war. Such assessments didn't provide exact answers or 100 percent certainty — but they did offer a basis for deciding how much to invest on defense and how to allocate resources among different defensive options.

Since Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, America has not made similar investments to measure our level of preparedness for homeland security contingencies. As a result, we have not gained the knowledge needed to make good resource allocation and policy decisions. The nation needs to do so now.

The United States should get beyond just talking about what we are spending for homeland security and learn how we can actually measure the effectiveness of what we are buying. Only at that point can we decide how confident we should be that the national preparedness system will be able to deliver the next time disaster strikes.

Brian A. Jackson is the associate director of the Homeland Security Research Program at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

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