Sunday, December 31, 2006

This Date in Fire History - Dec 31

New Year's Eve, 1986, San Juan, Puerto Rico: Guests were all over the place at the DuPont Plaza, enjoying the hotel's amenities. Gamblers tried their luck in the casino. Everyone expected a "usual" New Year's celebration.

Of course, that didn't happen.

Shortly after 3:00 PM, hotel staff discovered a fire in a ballroom being used, temporarily, for the storage of new guest-room furniture. The fire spread from the ballroom into the lobby of the hotel and casino and from there, smoke and fire gases spread through the high-rise portion of the building.

By the time search, evacuation, and rescue operations were concluded -- approximately 8:30 PM -- 97 people had died (including 17 hotel employees), and 146 were injured.

As might be expected, there were a "few" problems with the fire safety systems at the hotel:
  • There was no automatic sprinkler coverage in the public areas of the hotel. The structure was partially protected by sprinklers, primarily in laundry and storage areas and in the trash chutes. Additional sprinkler heads had been added, but protected only the laundry storage room and maid's closet on each guest floor.
  • The building's fire alarm system reportedly did not function. The NFPA investigation [link provided, but report is available to members only] of the fire involved more than 400 interviews -- not one person interviewed reported hearing the fire alarm system.
  • There was no fire evacuation plan for the hotel.
  • There was no employee policy for reporting fires.
  • There was no employee training to complement the (non-existent) fire plan.

Furthermore, according to the timeline provided in the NFPA investigation report, there was a delay of approximately twenty minutes between discovery of the fire and the time it was reported to the Fire Department. The Fire Department responded within five minutes of their initial notification; had notifcation been made immediately upon discovery, the FD would have arrived about the time employees abandoned their attempts at putting out the fire, which was also about the time smoke first started moving into the foyer, lobby, and casino levels.

They would have been there before the fire flashed over, before it spread outside the ballrooms... before the fire had a chance to kill 97 people.

Subsequent investigation indicated the fire was caused by arson: the hotel had been involved in fairly acrimonious negotiations with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represented about half the hotel''s employees. Less than ten minutes before the fire, the union members authorized a strike at midnight. Investigators believed the fire may have been intended to cause property damage, but certainly not injuries or deaths. Two hours before the fire, police had received a bomb threat against the hotel.

In February of 1988, a maintenance worker at the hotel admitted setting the fire and was sentenced to 30 years; three other employees were also charged.

Like most other major fires, the DuPont Plaza blaze did result in significant changes to fire codes around the country, including broadened sprinkler requirements, mandatory training for staff, and design and engineering changes to reduce the likelihood of fire. In a November 20, 2005, article in USA Today, reporter Gary Stoller cited a fire at the New York Hilton:

Hundreds of guests were evacuated from the 46-story hotel, Manhattan traffic was tied up for hours and 33 people were treated at the hospital for smoke inhalation. But, most important, no one died.

It's an increasingly common outcome of hotel fires these days.

Partly because automatic sprinklers are dousing or limiting the spread of fires before they become killers, the deadliest hotel fire in the USA since 1997 has been in single digits — six deaths. It was in a hotel without sprinklers.

Many hotel chains finally started retrofitting their properties with sprinklers, regardless of the cost. This had at least one unanticipated benefit: a 1990 federal law prohibits government employees traveling in the USA on business from staying in any hotel taller than three stories that lacks sprinklers. [A list of compliant hotels and motels may be found here.]

Marriott International has long been considered the lodging industry leader in fire sprinkler protection: virtually all properties bearing the Marriott name -- whether company-owned or franchised -- are fully sprinklered. Other well-known lodging chains like Ritz-Carlton, Hilton, Omni, Days Inn, Howard Johnson, Ramada, and Super 8, have varying levels of fully-sprinklered properties.

A sidebar to the USA Today story has this advice for travellers:

Before checking in, Roy Marshall asks if a high-rise hotel has automatic sprinklers. "If they don't, I don't stay there," says Marshall, former Iowa fire marshal and now director of a public interest group promoting fire safety in homes.

Some advice from experts on fire safety in hotels:

  • Book a lower-floor room equipped with sprinklers. Many such hotels are listed at [Link provided in the article was outdated, this is the correct link].For European hotels with sprinklers, check
  • Ask the desk clerk what the fire alarm sounds like. Ask for a room with a flashing alarm if you are deaf.
  • Locate exits and stairways. Count the number of doors between them and your room. Locate fire alarms.
  • If the door knob is hot, keep the door shut and place damp towels into the cracks around it. Open a window and turn on the bathroom vent if smoke enters the room.
  • Escape by stairs, not an elevator. If you must escape through smoke, get low.

A few extra pointers:

  • Make sure you know where your room key is. I generally place it in my shoes, which I keep right next to the bed (right next to my pants and shirt; I'm not planning on evacuating butt-nekkid).
  • Carry a flashlight in your suitcase - it may provide enough light to help you escape.
  • Know locations of fire extinguishers.
  • Ask the clerk specifically how to call the Fire Department in an emergency (not all hotels have outside phone service for all guests; make sure you can access 9-1-1 or the local emergency number).
Obviously, I can't guarantee that you'll never get hurt in a fire. Nobody can guarantee that. But if you use some common sense, and learn from the experiences of others, you can reduce the risk significantly.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Homeland Defense: Realities and Government Responses

Writing in the November issue of Homeland Defense Journal, publisher Don Dickson takes a fast – but interesting – look at what he perceives to be four realities that affect the ability of our nation to effectively prepare for crises: [original emphasis]

  • “Congress has developed a penchant for photo-op legislation. Lots of excitement, dedication, and press conferences. But many initiatives are not funded or funding limitations are imposed and cripple the original intent or scope.”

This is driven home in a separate article (“Appropriations Winners and Losers”) in the same issue, which points out that FEMA is “the biggest loser” in the current appropriations battle: despite DHS’s total appropriation being increased by 8%, FEMA’s share of the pie was reduced by 15% (or $2.5 billion). These appropriations constraints are not restricted to disaster preparedness, of course – we all remember how “No Child Left Behind” was enacted with much ballyhoo… but no budget. There was also Rumsfeld’s quote about ‘going to war with the army you have’, instead of appropriating sufficient funding to provide armored Humvees, body armor, and other necessary equipment, not to mention enough troops to achieve “mission accomplished.”

The bush administration has provided funding for their pet projects: $1.2 billion for the infamous fence along the Mexican border and other border-security “improvements”… like a huge, open-ended contract with well-known fencing contractor Boeing Corp., an additional $4.3 billion for port, cargo, and container security (most of which will probably be wasted on “pie in the sky” programs as Schneier and others have pointed out), $4.7 billion for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and $9.3 billion for Customs and Border Protection (CBP). These are the “sexy” issues upon which the administration is concentrating; the “bread and butter” programs – the ones that keep people alive – are once again receiving short shrift.

  • “Security is expensive. There are more needs than funds available. […] Ports, borders, critical infrastructure are all in need of assessment and response – but this will cost.”

That should come as no great surprise. As any number of writers has pointed out, we have many more priorities than we have funding to fulfill them. Unfortunately, most of the available funding is being dedicated to the high-profile projects, even if those projects have low return on investment (“Star Wars”, indiscriminate screening at airports, the border fence).

As Schneier has pointed out, it would make far more sense to perform a standard cost-benefit analysis on these competing priorities, and to devote scarce resources to those projects that have the highest return on investment.

  • “Apathy remains with us. Perhaps this is not all bad. We are a nation of positive people, who wish for the best and often fall into believing the best will happen. Outside of New York, Washington and a few other major cities, we cannot imagine our town a victim of horrific violence.”

This is quite disingenuous, when you stop to think about it. Our towns may not become victims of “horrific violence” perpetrated by outsiders, but they may certainly become victims of natural or man-made disasters… just ask the people of Apex, North Carolina, or Graniteville, where hazardous materials were released as the result of a fire and train derailment, respectively. The same general principles that would enable us to recover from a terrorist attack would also help us recover from a natural or man-made disaster. It’s disturbing that the publisher of Homeland Defense Journal would – like the bushies – focus on only the sexy terrorism issues, while overlooking the far more likely local problems.

  • “The bad people are over there. Foreign nations, foreign cultures, thousands of miles away give us a sense that it really isn’t going to happen here.”

Dickson concludes his piece by saying:

Unfortunately, these realities and many others will put a drag on our ability to aggressively address the threats in front of us. Unfortunately, the bad people have, can, and if you believe many of our informed experts, will come here. My personal hope is that Congress truly addresses these matters, we find the funds to protect our infrastructure, we as private and corporate citizens get involved in the dialogue and we are successful at preventing external or internal attacks.

Dickson is correct, as far as he goes; the problem is he doesn’t go far enough. He has apparently slipped from the “reality-based community” to the alternate reality created by the current administration, where only terrorist attacks are worthy of attention, planning, and resources.

Government Response and Its Repercussions

Another article, “Response to Terrorism Might Incite or Quell Further Terrorists’ Acts” by Gary LaFree, discusses how governmental response to terrorist acts might actually reinforce the very behaviors government is seeking to reduce. In examining a study conducted by Laura Dugan and Raven Korte, LaFree compares British anti-terrorist actions in Northern Ireland with the responses from the Irish.

LaFree establishes a nexus with the present circumstances by pointing out that Osama bin Laden wrote that he decided to support the 9-11 attacks, in part, “because he believed American retaliation would inevitably kill innocents, thereby demonstrating the extent of American hatred toward Muslims.” One question not raised, that I feel warrants further discussion, is whether bin Laden’s statement shows the depth of his devotion to his “holy cause”, or if it simply indicates a willingness to sacrifice innocents on the altar of his own power and stature within the fundamentalist/extremist Islamic community.

The study examines five British responses – three military and two criminal justice actions – to the violence in Northern Ireland. In three of the five responses, Irish extremists exhibited defiance of the British, showing the actions had not had the intended deterrent effects.

LaFree summarizes the implications of the study and the three circumstances that would tend to move a proposed government intervention toward deterrence or defiance:

  • The importance of the freedom being withdrawn. If the behavior being regulated is of relatively less importance to the actor, deterrence might occur. Conversely, if the freedom or act is of high importance to the actor, defiance is likely to result. Symbolism is also important, as we saw with the Mohammed cartoon brouhaha.
  • The strength of social bonds between the punished and the punisher. Stronger social bonds tend to result in deterrence. LaFree cites the upsurge in Pakistani attitudes toward America after substantial foreign after the Pakistani earthquakes.
  • The perceived fairness of a contemplated strategy. Interventions that are perceived as reasonable, equal, and fair are more likely to result in deterrence of the unwanted behavior.

Friday, December 29, 2006

This Date in Fire History - Dec 30

Note: This is being posted early as I will probably be horrendously busy tomorrow.

103 years ago today, a fire at the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago claimed over 600 lives (death counts range from 600 to 603, depending on the source; the Cook County Coroner’s Inquest Record indicates 601, while the National Fire Protection Association lists 602).

There is a tremendous amount of information available on the Iroquois fire, for a number of reasons:

  • The incredible loss of life
  • The victims were primarily women and children
  • The corruption and callousness of private business interests and public officials
  • A relatively large number of survivors
  • The fire occurred in a major city, with an active (and muckraking) press
  • The newness of the structure at the time of the fire

The Story in a Nutshell

The Iroquois Theatre had been open about a month (the Chicago Public Library says “less than a month,” while an article on says “five weeks”). The 1724-seat theatre had 1900 patrons for a “standing room only” matinee performance of the comedy “Mr. Blue Beard, Jr.”, starring Eddie Foy and Annabelle Whitford. Fire erupted when an arc light ignited a canvass scenery “flat”. An on-duty (house) fireman, armed only with two tubes of “Kilfyres” powder, was unable to extinguish the fire in its incipient stage. Attempts to lower an asbestos fire curtain failed when the curtain hung up in wooden tracks, allowing the fire to spread to the auditorium. In the ensuing panic, approximately 600 people – mostly women and children – died, from smoke inhalation, burns, or trampling. The fire itself lasted about 30 minutes, but its effects are still being felt today.

The Iroquois Theatre Building

The theatre itself was “a magnificent palace of marble and mahogany, a ‘virtual temple of beauty,’" according to the Getnet account mentioned above. The theatre was also described as “absolutely fireproof”, which was true – the building itself was hardly damaged (it reopened less than a year later as the Colonial Theatre).

The theatre had at least thirty exits, but some were barred by iron gates, while others were locked. Those gates that were unlocked had unfamiliar and easily-overlooked latches, which were difficult to open. Many of the doors opened into the building; the panicked throngs pressing against the doors prevented them from opening (as was the case 40 years later, at the Cocoanut grove, bodies were found piled against these doors). Additionally, there had been no training for theatre staff in fire procedures.

An abysmal history of theatre fires had already resulted in numerous fire and life safety requirements for theatres: fireproof curtains (usually asbestos), fire extinguishers, hose and standpipe stations, etc. However, then (as now), corruption was rampant in Chicago, and bribed officials allowed the theatre to open without these vital safeguards.

Crowd Behavior

Most sources give the audience size as approximately 1900 at the time of the fire, although star Eddie Foy, in a first-hand account subsequently published in the NFPA Journal, said, “The testimony of others indicated there were many more standees than admitted by the management, and it was widely believed that there were at least 2,100 in the house – some reports claimed 2,300.” There were also approximately 400 cast and crew-members.

When he first spotted the fire, Foy urged the crowd to remain calm and shouted for the stage manager to drop the asbestos curtain, but the curtain jammed partway down. It was at roughly this point that cast and crew members started escaping through rear doors. The stage doors, however, admitted fresh air, blowing the flames under the partially-lowered asbestos curtain and into the seating area. Once the fire spread into the auditorium itself, panic ensued. The staff librarians at Chicago Public Library, in their compilation of data, describe what happened next:

Even though it was outside the fire area, trampled bodies were piled ten high in the stairwell area where exits from the balcony met the exit from the main floor. More fatalities occurred when fire broke out underneath an alley fire escape. People above the fire jumped. The first to jump died as they hit the hard pavement. Later jumpers landed on the bodies and survived. The same scenario happened as patrons jumped from the balcony to the main floor of the theater.

In many ways, this is similar to the panic exhibited by crowds in other large fires such as Cocoanut Grove and the Beverly Hills Supper Club.

The Investigation

The Getnet article discusses the investigation and subsequent legal proceedings:

A coroner's inquest began within a week. Over two hundred witnesses testified. It was a national sensation, exposing unbelievable laxity on the part of the theater and city officials charged with public safety. Hearings revealed that 'complimentary' tickets motivated city inspectors to ignore the fire code and let the theater open. Theater principals, building owners, Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison and others were indicted, but those cases eventually were dismissed on technicalities. The only person to serve a jail term was a tavern keeper whose nearby saloon was used as a temporary morgue. He was convicted of robbing the dead.

The Aftermath

As is generally the case after a major fire with significant loss of life, there was a dash to “ensure this never happens again.” Chicago’s Mayor Harrison shuttered almost 200 theatres, halls, and churches for months, leaving 6,000 people unemployed. The new fire code required exit doors that opened out, clearly marked exits, steel fire curtains, and staff drills.

Of course, after the initial horror had passed, people once again became complacent, believing it would “never happen to them.” Inspectors once again became lax (or corrupt) and building and business owners again became more concerned about gate-crashers.

The result?

Cocoanut Grove, 492 dead. The Rhythm Club, 207 dead. Rhodes Opera House, 170 dead. Beverly Hills Supper Club, 165 dead. The Station Night Club, 100 dead.

Factors Contributing to the Loss of Life

As is so often the case, many of the deaths at the Iroquois Theatre were caused by "the usual suspects": locked or blocked fire exits, overcrwding, and poorly-trained staff. Although the theatre had a sufficient number of exits on paper, the fact that many exits were barred or used the unfamiliar latches resulted in insufficient exits in practice. Additionally, overcrowding -- whether the roughly 200 standees cited in most sources, or the almost 600 claimed by Eddie Foy -- is asking for trouble (Cocoanut Grove and Beverly Hills were both also grossly overcrowded).

Lessons Learned

What can we do to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again? While it is easy to pin all responsibility on others, we are ultimately responsible for our own safety. The simplest way to fulfill that responsibility is to be aware of your surroundings. When you enter a place of public assembly, whether it be a church, a restaurant, a night club, or a theatre, look for these things:

  • Fire exits: should be plainly marked; plan a route to several exits, and assume vision may be reduced or eliminated; don’t plan on getting out the same way you came in (that’s what killed many of the victims at the Station)
  • Fire extinguishers: not a panacea, as I’ve pointed out in the past, but they have saved countless lives; and know how to use them
  • Fire sprinklers: look for the heads sticking down from the ceiling; if you don’t see them, leave (I refuse to patronize a business that isn’t fully sprinklered).

After the Station fire, the State of Rhode Island mandated full fire sprinkler systems for all bars and nightclubs, regardless of when they were built – no more “grandfathering.” All states should follow their example.

Why the emphasis on sprinklers? Simple.

There has never – NEVER – been a multiple-fatality fire in a fully sprinklered building (assuming the system was operational and the fire was within design parameters of the system).

Fire sprinkler systems have been protecting factories since the 1870’s. Shouldn’t we demand the same protection for ourselves?

This Date in Fire History - Dec 29

On this date in 1908, an explosion at the Lick Branch coal mine in Switchback, WV, claimed 50 (or 51) lives. A second explosion at the same mine, two weeks later, on January 12, 1909, killed an additional 66.

Obviously, many of the safety features and procedures that govern today's mining operations didn't exist 98 years ago, but as we've seen with more recent disasters like the January, 2005, disaster at the Sego mine -- also in WV -- mining is, and probably always will be, a dirty, hard, dangerous job.

Any time you tunnel deep into the earth, whether for a coal mine or to build a roadway under the English Channel, you run the risks of collapse, flooding, fire, explosion, or toxic gases like methane and carbon monoxide.

While it is probably impossible to make mining a risk-free enterprise, we could almost certainly reduce the death toll by abolishing the bush administration's business-friendly (and hence, worker un-friendly) policies and re-institute reasonable and effective mine inspections under the Mine Safety and Health Administration and similar state agencies, and by creating incentives (such as tax credits, or hefty fines for violations) for mine operators to improve their safety records. We should also ensure that miners are paid wages commensurate with the risks of their occupation, and further, ensure that their dependants are cared for after a disaster.

One other thing we can and must do is learn from our mistakes. New Mexico did just that: in March of 2006, Governor Richardson signed into law the New Mexico Mining Safety Act, which was based, in part, on lessons learned from Sego. In June of 2006, New Mexico fined Phelps Dodge $50,000 for violating the new law.

I wasn't able to find any links, but I seem to recall that Sego had been cited -- but not fined -- for numerous safety violations over the year or two prior to the January explosion.

We've all heard about the Cheney adminsitration's double-super-secret energy policy, which, for all practical intents and purposes, was developed by the enrgy industry. Do you really believe that the energy conglomerates are going to "waste" money on safety, when they could use it instead for dividends?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Priest and the Teen-age Boy

Another one from AP:

Priest tackles intruder, foils theft

INDIANAPOLIS - A Roman Catholic priest tackled a teenage boy he found rummaging through a church rectory Tuesday, foiling a theft attempt, police said. The intruder and another man escaped briefly. But police officers used a description by the Rev. Noah Casey to track and arrest them.

I wish my first thought had been that the priest was doing his best to grab a thief, but with all the bad press the Catholic Church has had over the last few years, my first thought was "priest + tackling a teenage boy = attempted homosexual pedophile rape".

The Church has been covering up these sexual assaults for so long that it almost seems reasonable to put such stories in the worst possible light.

It doesn't help matters that the Church keeps trying to position itself as the sole arbiter of morality (when we all know that title falls to "the Decider") while it simultaneously deals with hundreds of allegations of homosexual pedophile priests raping young boys.

My Lost Luggage is... WHERE?!?!?

We all know that the TSA is responsible for screening passengers, carry-on baggage, and checked baggage on airliners. It would make sense, therefore, to assume that TSA is also responsible for ensuring the security of luggage once it is entrusted to them, and that they take the appropriate steps to do so.

Nope. Once TSA screens the bags, they're the airlines' problem... except when the bags come off the planes and are in secured airport areas. Once the bags are back on the ground, they are again TSA's responsibility, in that TSA is responsible for the security of "back areas".

AP is reporting that 60-70 pieces of airline luggage were found in a Houston dumpster. The luggage belonged to passengers on flights on Continental, Lufthansa, British Airways and US Airways.

A Continental spokeswoman was quoted as saying she didn't know if the contents of the bags were stolen.

It would seem to me that if 60 or 70 pieces of luggage miraculously appeared in a Dumpster, with no indication of how they got there from the airport, it should be safe to assume they are, in fact, stolen.

So, once again, TSA appears to have dropped the ball. Unless, of course, the miscreants grabbed all 70 bags from the carousel, without the rightful owners noticing a damn thing. Somehow, I doubt that's the case.

This Date in Fire History - December 28

Yes, I'm paranoid about fire safety, I admit it. Many years ago, when I was a cop (and taking some college classes), I had to attend an autopsy as part of my classwork. With my usual (not-so-) incredible luck, I drew a fire victim. I have never seen, smelled, or experienced anything like it, and I never want to again.

America has seen some truly horrendous fires over the years, from the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911 that killed 146 factory workers, to the 1942 fire at Boston's Cocoanut Grove that killed 492, plus the more recent fires at the Beverly Hills Supper Club (165 dead), the MGM Grand Hotel (84 dead) and the Station Nightclub (100 dead).

Time after time, investigators found the same causes for fire fatalities: insufficient fire exits, locked or blocked exits, overcrowding, delayed reporting of the fire, and/or poorly-trained staff.

In an effort to reduce the likelihood of further needless fire deaths, I'm going to try -- with the help of the National Fire Protection Association -- to remind one and all of fire's potential, by posting significant fires (and significant developments in fire safety). NFPA, by the way, is not involved in this effort, other than by providing a list of significant dates in fire safety; I'm using that list as a starting point.

I will try to have daily "This Date in Fire History" posts, with discussion, commentary, and/or advice on fire safety. We may discuss the fires themselves; the social, legal, or psychological ramifications of major fires; how a particular fire may have been prevented (or, at least, how the loss of life may have been prevented); or some combination of the above.

My goal is not to gross you out, my readers; rather, it is to get you thinking, planning, to better allow you to survive a fire situation.

Of course, some of the most significant fires occurred so long ago that little or no information may be readily available. In those cases, we'll discuss what info there is, and how similar disasters may be prevented in the future.

Herewith, the first "This Date in Fire History":

On this date in 1966, an oil tanker truck collided with a train in Everett, MA. The resulting explosion and fire killed 13. The only references I was able to locate were NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) reports, which are not available on-line.

Judging solely on the basis of the report title, it appears there was a tanker-truck/train collision, probably at a grade crossing (based on my experiences in MA). Forty years ago, there may or may not have been gates or signals at such a crossing, especially if it were a spur line. On the other hand, train crews are usually very good about signalling their approach to a crossing (as anyone who has ever lived near a rail line can testify). It has been a Federal law for many years, however, that trucks carrying hazardous materials must stop at rail crossings and ensure the way is clear before proceeding.

Obviously, somehow, the tanker truck and the train tried to occupy the same space at the same time... with predictably tragic results. In this case, thirteen people died, almost certainly the truck driver, maybe the train engineer, and some innocent passers-by.

Time and again, motorists try to beat trains to the crossing, and time and again, the motorist loses.

Back when I was a kid, railroad crossings were marked "Stop, Look, Listen". Maybe we should go back to that.

TSA: More Not-So-Positive Press has an interesting trio of articles on TSA and airport security (the articles date from Jan 31, 2006 to Dec 10, 2006).

In the first (and most recent) article, writer "Adrianm" discusses what many perceive to be a conflict of interests within TSA's functions: regulatory agency and service provider:

But three recent events illustrate that the conflict is very real. One was the widely reported Red Team testing of screening at Newark*, in which the team beat the screeners 20 out of 22 times. A second, reported last week by Annie Jacobsen at National Review Online (Nov. 28th), concerned a four-foot sword (!) that a passenger managed to carry on board an American plane at Dallas-Fort Worth. And the third, also reported by Jacobsen, was an incident at Kona, Hawaii, in which a baggage screener accidentally dropped a binder of information designated SSI (Sensitive Security Information) into a passenger’s luggage while it was being screened. The passenger, Navy veteran Joe Langer, only discovered the binder when he unpacked the bag the next day.

As an aside, it should be noted that the "source" for two of the incidents is Annie Jacobson, whose claim to fame was the "Muslim wedding band" incident I've mentioned in the past, so I would take her with a grain of salt, more so now that she's affiliated with National review.

Adrianm points out that TSA's response to the Newark problem was to dispatch an investigative team... "not why the screening performance was so miserable but who leaked the report to the media."

Adrianm points out -- as have many others, including yours truly -- that the best cure is to restructure TSA solely as a regulatory agency, and spin off the operational aspects (at which they suck, so it would be no great loss).

Next, in an article dated Nov 28, Adrianm comments on how the Democratic-controlled Congress may affect travel security. Adrianm starts with this:

One of the fragile reeds that keeps the system from being worse is that the federalized airport security workforce is not allowed to unionize and bargain for hundreds of policies to benefit the workers and make things worse for the traveling public. No [sic] the least continuing the process of diverting more security dollars into screeners pockets rather than into real security measures.

I think that Adrian meant to say that being prohibited from unionizing would prevent "diverting more security dollars into screeners pockets." I would beg to differ on that point: a starting salary of $24,000 per year is hardly a livable wage. Perhaps in someplace like Duluth, one could survive on $500 a week, but in places like metro NY, DC, Boston, or LA, it's impossible. Coolie wages like these were what got the private screeners into trouble in the aftermath of 9-11, as I've pointed out. Adrianm again makes the point, however, that TSA needs to be overhauled, with which I fully agree.

In the third (and oldest -- Jan 31, 2006) article, Chris Mitchell refers to two studies, both of which are quite interesting: "Airport Security: Time for a New Model", and "Reason's Airport Security Research and Commentary."

*Note that this is not the incident I reported on earlier, in which TSA officials conspired with private screeners at LAX to cheat on penetration tests. The Newark case is a completely separate screw-up by TSA.

Round-Up, Part I

My, oh my, what a long, strange week it's been...

First, at least in terms of priority, we lost three more greats: James Brown, President Gerald R. Ford, and former CBS executive Dr. Frank Stanton.

Then, of course, we had the usual Christmas/Kwanzaa/Hanukah/Festivus insanity, including the obligatory near-riots at several malls. Unfortunately, we also saw yet another fatal shooting rampage, also at a mall.

On the Homeland Insecurity front, a baby was sent through an X-ray machine at LAX. Fortunately, the TSA screener spotted the baby before he receieved an excessive dose of radioation. I suppose a baby's skeleton must look like a pair of toenail scissors in an X-ray.

Also on the TSA front, TSA has announced that airport workers will now be screened upon reporting for work. Mark Hatfield, the Federal Security Director at Newark Liberty Airport outside NYC, said, "it's not because we have suspicions about the employees, but we know they represent a body of people that terrorists can hide among." The screening, of course, will not apply to TSA staff, as they are -- apparently -- inherently trustworthy, despite the agency's record of hiring and retaining perverts, criminals and assorted losers (here and here, plus you can Google "TSA screeners arrested", which now yields 90,500 hits).

TSA's assumption of inherent honesty is tarnished somewhat by an incident in San Antonio, in which a man found a TSA screener's jacket for sale in a local thrift store. After TSA blew the guy off, he went to the local TV station with the story. Turns out, the TSA has at least 3719 missing uniforms and/or employee ID's.

Now bear with me on this...

Your average airport probably has at least 100 screeners (places like JFK, O'Hare, and LAX have more than 1000), who work various full- and part-time shifts. Because of TSA's treatment of the screeners, there is constant turn-over in the workforce, so it's entirely likely that not even the supervisors will recognize each and every person; therefore, they have to rely on uniforms and employee ID's. 3719 missing unforms and ID's means there's an excellent chance that some miscreant will get his/her/its hands on one and cause some trouble.

TSA's response? [Emphasis added]

"Yes I did," Martinez told News 4 during an on-camera interview. "When I first got the jacket, I looked in the phone book and I tried to contact somebody over at TSA. And I told them about the jacket, and they just told me it was a discarded uniform, and that was it. I didn't feel comfortable, but I didn't throw it away or give it away." Martinez said the TSA told him they didn't want it back.

Martinez is the man who found the jacket for sale.

Oh, and TSA lied to Congress about the problem: [Emphasis added]

Congressman Lamar Smith spoke with the Trouble Shooters about the problem during a recent visit to his office on the North Side of San Antonio. Smith sits on the Homeland Security Committee and did not know the problem was getting worse until we showed him the new information. That's because TSA sent him a letter in August claiming the numbers were much lower. In that letter, Assistant Secretary Kip Hawley told the Congressman that TSA did not have any idea of the number of missing uniforms and that only 1375 ID badges were reported missing. That's not true. TSA had the larger numbers in May, nearly four months before they sent the letter to Smith.

Yup, that's "inherent honesty" for you.

The Department of Homeland Security announced a couple of weeks ago that they were implementing new procedures to increase security in the shipping sector, which includes ports and railroads. In response, both the United States Department of Transportation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey revealed their own plans, which of course provide much better security than DHS's offering.

Gotta love 'em.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Golden Telephone

Back in the old days, I had a hobby photographing old churches. Not that I'm terribly religious, mind you, I just thought they looked good. Anyway, every church I visited had a gold phone in the foyer, with a card saying "Direct Line to Heaven - $10.00 per Call".

Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire... all had the same thing. Didn't matter what denomination the church was, either: Catholics, Baptists, Congregationalists, they all had the same phone.

So one day, I landed in front of the First Congregational Church of Kittery, Maine, and there was the usual gold phone.

But this one's sign said "Direct Line to Heaven - $.25 per Call". I tracked down the minister and asked why the phone in his church cost a quarter to call Heaven when every other church was ten bucks.

His answer?

"From heah, it's only a local call."

What brought this to mind was last night, thinking about how "the hardest-working man in show business" would finally be able to take a short vacation. I decided to call Heaven and see what James Brown was doing, so I wandered down the street to the local House O' Worship, which happened to be Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, slid my ATM card into the slot and picked up the phone.

St. Peter picked up the phone, and I could hear a truly righteous party going on in the background.

Nope, James Brown wasn't taking it easy. He was partying up a storm, with Hendrix, Lennon, Harrison, Bobby Darin, Jim Morrison, both Joplins (Scott and Janis), and all the rest.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas day, 2006

What a year.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, etc, to one and all.

I'm at work today (someone's gotta do it, right?), so more later.

"Godfather of Soul" James Brown died this morning. He was 73.

On this date in fire history, 15 people died in a gambling hall fire in Dresslerville, Nevada, in 1947.

So I guess being at work isn't all that bad, all things considered.

Friday, December 15, 2006

RFID Chips and Privacy

Security guru Bruce Schneier, whom I've often cited in the past, has a very interesting piece in his latest Crypto-Gram, about the new Nike - IPod Sport Kit, which allows a transmitter in your sneaker to upload information to your IPod. The trouble is, of course, a complete lack of security: the transmitter can be read up to 60 feet away, using about $250 worth of off-the-shelf components.

Schneier's conclusion? [Emphasis added]

To me, the real significance of this work is how easy it was. The people who designed the Nike+iPod system put zero thought into security and privacy issues. Unless we enact some sort of broad law requiring companies to add security into these sorts of systems, companies will continue to produce devices that erode our privacy through new technologies. Not on purpose, not because they're evil -- just because it's easier to ignore the externality than to worry about it.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: if you're concerned about safety, privacy, and security, you should read his newsletter regularly (it's free, too).

He also links to one of Rich Tennant's The Fifth Wave cartoons (if the name's not familiar, his work graced most of the "... For Dummies" books). The panel zings the TSA... go take a peek.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

RIP: Peter Boyle

Peter Boyle, the unexpected comedic genius, has died at age 71, according to the wire services. I hadn't realized he originally was a monk, but what the hell. The church's loss was society's gain. Despite roles in such movies as "Taxi Driver", "Joe", and "The Candidate", I will remember him most for three of his comedic roles: the monster in Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein", the Godfather in Michael Keaton's "Johnny Dangerously", and of course as the father on TV's "Everybody Loves Raymond" (although I truly despised the rest of the cast). he also did the remake of the classic Alka-Seltzer commercial, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing".

On the other hand, this will re-unite Boyle with Marty Feldman (who died in 1982), who played Igor in "Young Frankenstein"... Jesus, what a pair they made.

Rest well, Peter.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Amen. 'Nuff Said.

Lifted from BlondeSense's Red State Blues: [Emphasis added]


So House members have been told that they're gonna actually have to work for a living, with in-coming Majority Leader Steny Hoyer saying that the House will be in session Mondays thru Fridays when the new Congress convenes. That ain't goin' down too well with some of the Republican members, who seem to believe that actually having to work for their annual salary of $165,200 is, um, an assault on family values.

"Keeping us up here eats away at families," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who typically flies home on Thursdays and returns to Washington on Tuesdays. "Marriages suffer. The Democrats could care less about families -- that's what this says."

Tell that to the folks working for minimum wage (which you refuse to raise), Mr. Kingston. Tell that to the people working two jobs just to make ends meet or to pay for health care. How often do you think they get to see their families, Mr. Whiny-Butt Boy? Cry me a freaking river. This is the job you wanted, that you campaigned for, that you spent millions of other people's money to get. So, STFU and get to work.


Obviously, Kingston believes that a three-day work-week is cruel and unusual punishment.

These arrogant little prima donna assholes really need to get out of DC and see what the real world is like.

Mustang Bobby Nails It

Mustang Bobby posted a piece discussing Lizard-boy Gingrich's possible run for the Presidency. He also touches on how the george w. bush administration views the Constitution (that "Goddamned piece of paper"):

Sixty-five years ago today, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Habor and launched America into World War II (a war that we won in less time than the current conflict in Iraq has lasted), this nation responded, as could be expected, with cold fury. In some cases, the people and the government took it out on innocent victims (vide the internment of citizens of Japanese descent) and there were calls for restrictions on the Bill of Rights during wartime in order to protect ourselves. But it was clear then -- as it apparently isn't to the True Believers -- that if we did that, we would be no better than the tyrannies we were fighting. There are some things you just do not give up in order to win, and if we cannot win with our basic laws and ideas intact, then what right do we have to preach freedom and democracy to the world when we can't even guarantee it to ourselves?

If we do give them up, then we surely have become our own worst nightmare. We're getting awfully close to it if Newt Gingrich can seriously advocate "rethinking" the First Amendment and can seriously think about running for president, and people can still take him seriously at all.

"President Gingrich"... there's a scary thought.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Dr. Menlo's Take

Dr. Menlo has a piece up at American Samizdat that bears reading. Some excerpts:

And yet - the average American - known around the world for their idleness at election-time - came out in droves not only for an election, but for a midterm election. Victory for the democrats, my ass. If horses had ran [sic] against the Republicans in the last election, the horses might just have won.

The latinos, too - came out and came out against the Republicans. No longer maybe, as John Leguizamo once put it, will you have "roaches for Raid." (Same goes for loghouse Republicans, etc, etc.) Not for the Democrats, but against the Republicans. Don't just take my word for it - Nancy Pelosi put out the strategy to not say anything - the repubs were just screwing themselves, let 'em fall. You say something, they attack you, so say nothing. Give them nothing to attack while they fall all over themselves . . . and their naked boy teens, gay escorts, dirty money, whathaveyou.

Gore Vidal said the last election was the last chance for this country to save itself before sliding into fascism. Gore Vidal said that. And against all odds - even stacked against the plethora of dirty tricks they pulled out - the people overwhelmed them. That, and they overestimated themselves. Their hubris brought them down. They totally had no idea how many people in this country fucking hated them. Fuck the Democrats, the last election was about hating the Republicans.

They didn't come out for the fucking Dems - they came out against the fascism. Even moderates and righties were spooked by having their phone tapped, and all that shit. Especially darkest before the election - plans to OK everyone leaving and entering the country, extended martial law powers for the retard in the puppet seat, and the ability to take any US citizen in the middle of the nite and not tell anyone about it, and later torture and kill that person, Pinochet-style.

This is another case of "Just go read the whole thing."

Monday, December 04, 2006

Disaster Prep: My Opinion

I'm still working my way through a vertitable TON of literature on disaster preparedness (Part I, Part II), and I keep coming back to a couple of inescapable facts:

  • As it was established by President Carter, FEMA brought together disparate segments of the Federal government's emergency response program (the Federal Insurance Administration, the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, the National Weather Service Community Preparedness Program, the Federal Preparedness Agency of the General Services Administration and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration activities from HUD. Civil defense responsibilities were also transferred to the new agency from the Defense Department's Defense Civil Preparedness Agency [Source: FEMA History]). This centralized the government's resources and expertise and streamlined the process by reducing waste and duplication of effort.
  • When President Clinton nominated James Lee Witt as Director in 1993, he chose a man who had had experience as a state emergency manager (the first FEMA director with such a background). He also elevated the FEMA Director to a Cabinet-level position, showing his (Clinton's) commitment to emergency preparedness.
  • george w. bush, on the other hand, appointed Joe M. Allbaugh, a political crony with zero emergency management experience. After FEMA was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security, Micheal D. Brown -- he of "heckuva job" fame -- was named Director.
  • After the creation of DHS, much of FEMA's training and preparedness functions were eliminated, out-sourced (of course to bush cronies), or transferred to other DHS entities that did not have the expertise, resources, or even desire to perform them effectively. Katrina and Rita were a direct result of this cavalier approach to disaster management.
This leads me to the conclusion that bush viewed (and probably still does view) FEMA as nothing more than a sinecure for his sycophants. Brown, after all, was head of the Arabian Horse Association, a background which did not appear of much use in emergency management (although at least one wag pointed out that Brown did, in fact, "do a heckuva job", in that not one Arabian horse was lost in Katrina).

I would urge the new Congress and Senate to begin a comprehensive review of FEMA, and DHS as a whole, with the goal of re-creating FEMA as a separate Cabinet-level agency, designed to concentrate on emergency management and disaster response efforts, as it did under Carter and Clinton.

Certainly, terrorism is not going to go away as a concern for Americans, and some sort of DHS-like agency is still going to be required. I would posit, however, that a restructured DHS-2 (for lack of a better term) could function efficiently as a component of a reconstituted FEMA, with its terrorism expertise (such as it is) supporting the overall preparedness goals of FEMA.

DHS, as it was envisioned by the bush administration, had terrorism as its primary -- if not sole -- focus; all other department functions were subordinated to terrorism. In an address in February, 2004, Secretary Tom Ridge (another whose only claim to disaster expertise was supporting george w. bush), said:

Our mission is: "to lead the unified national effort to secure America," to "prevent and deter terrorist attacks and protect against and respond to threats and hazards to the nation." That, in fact, is our Department's Mission Statement. [Emphasis added]

Ridge made it abundantly clear that the department's main focus was to be the "sexy" issues, not the mundane. Yet, it is the mundane issues that killed people in Louisiana and Mississippi.

A critical component of disaster planning (or any planning, for that matter) is "thinking outside the box": what could happen? what can go wrong? and how can I prevent or lessen the impact of what does go wrong? This requires the ability to think creatively, to examine an issue for all possible contingencies, to rank those contingencies by likelihood and impact, to determine mitigation strategies, and to decide if the risks identified can be accepted, mitigated or transferred - in other words, it requires the ability to perform a full "risk assessment" on a contemplated project (or emergency). The lack of independent thought fostered by the bush administration, however, has resulted in DHS planning "for the last attack" (as Bruce Schneier puts it), instead of examining potential new attack modalities.

What should happen is this (and this is drawn from the recommendations of assorted experts):
  • Re-establish FEMA as a separate, Cabinet-level agency, with its top management drawn from experienced emergency managers;
  • Restructure TSA as a regulatory agency, eliminating its operational aspects (since they haven't worked out so well, as I and many others have pointed out in the past);
  • Return TSA's operational duties to the private sector, with much greater oversight to prevent abuses;
  • Remove the intelligence-gathering aspects from DHS and place them within the FBI, and beef up the FBI's existing Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR, their version of Internal Affairs) to prevent abuses similar to those we have already seen;
  • Transfer DHS's existing planning and logistics functions to the reconstituted FEMA;
  • Perhaps (and I'm not 100% sure of this) consider taking the enforcement operations of DHS -- Immigration, Customs, etc. -- and place them in a separate agency (this agency may want to retain the DHS name);
  • Increase Congressional oversight of all revamped DHS/FEMA-type operations, and ensure that scarce resources are not being squandered; and (perhaps most important)
  • Beg, plead, cajole, and if necessary, bribe James Lee Witt into returning and rebuilding the agency he took to the pinnacle of success before it was gutted by the bush administration.
What will happen, of course, is probably something vastly different.

At least, until the grownups are back in charge.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Schneier on Voting Irregularities

Bruce Schneier, whom I've cited before, has four consecutive articles on voting issues in the current issue of his newsletter Crypto-Gram. The first two discuss errors (and possibly, fraud) in tabulating votes. In the second article, he says:

I'm happy to see a Republican at the receiving end of the problems.

Actually, that's not true. I'm not happy to see anyone at the receiving end of voting problems. But I am sick and tired of this being perceived as a partisan issue, and I hope some high-profile Republican losses that might be attributed to electronic voting-machine malfunctions (or even fraud) will change that perception. This is a serious problem that affects everyone, and it is in everyone's interest to fix it.

I tend to agree with him, it's nice to see Republicans bitching about election fraud.

On the other hand, all four articles -- the first four in the issue -- paint a rather bleak picture of the accuracy of elections these days.

If you don't read Crypto-Gram on a regular basis, you should.

THAT'S A Possibility.....

Updated to add this:

WARNING: If you are offended by graphic, non-politically-correct language, or if you believe LordGodKing Dick'n'george and his minions are God's own saviors, DO NOT READ THIS PIECE! If the truth offends you, try here.

Here's one suggestion for "the ultimate solution", via FireStarter5:

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

(Thanks to the Yahoo Message Boards)

....and you thought I had a mean streak!

Yeah, that would pretty much do it, I think.

Emergency Prep and Garage Doors

In re-reading two posts from earlier, I was struck by another useful piece of knowledge to have in an emergency:

If you have an electric garage door opener, make sure you know how to open it in a power outage... or if the Air Force seizes control of the zapper.

DHS Strikes Yet AGAIN!

Bob's Links and Rants has a good piece on DHS's latest "tool", the Automated Targeting System. This allows the DHS to assign every person entering or leaving the country -- even United States citizens -- a "threat assessment score" (similar to a credit score). These scores, of course, are confidential, and the methodology is double-super-top-secret. And like a credit score, there's no way for the "consumer" to correct an inaccurate report (and the ATS scores will be maintained for 40 years, not the seven years credit reports are held).

Go. Read. Now.

Another of george w. bush's "critical" efforts in the war on freedo-- err, terra.

Amazing how many yard signs I've seen in and around the Ann Arbor area that say "Impeach bush".

Disaster Prep: 2 Good Articles

One of the email groups to which I subscribe is aimed at emergency managers. Today's digest links to two articles from Hal Newman's fascinating website,, both of which are well worth perusing.

The first article, The Fire, discusses Angela Devlen's response (and reaction) to a fire that destroyed her home earlier this year.

The second, Disaster Simulations: Getting Better, But Still No Panacea, examines the Zack Phillips article in Government Executive I cited a couple of days ago.

Both pieces are excellent, and the whole site is worth a read. That's why it's now on the blogroll (even though it isn't a blog, per se].

Disaster Preparedness: Cover Your Ass

Blue Girl in a Red State stopped by to read the posts on emergency preparedness, and posted a very good article at her blog about what sort of things one should have around the house for emergencies. I’d like to add a few suggestions.

First, the most important thing to have is knowledge. If you’re going to be on your own for three days to five days as FEMA suggests, here are some things you should know:

  • First Aid and CPR: People are injured in disasters, that’s a given. A basic 9-hour First Aid/CPR class can enable you to save a life – your own or that of a loved one. Classes are available through the American Red Cross; click on the link to find your local chapter. The course costs approximately $65.00.
  • Fire Extinguisher Use: Get at least one extinguisher per level of your house (including the cellar or basement). Make sure you get the kind with a metal valve assembly (they can be refilled; the ones with plastic assemblies cannot). KNOW HOW TO USE IT SAFELY. Instructions will be included with the extinguisher; read them. Your local fire department may offer training in the proper use of extinguishers. OSHA and the National Ag Safety Database also have information on their websites.
  • Utilities Shut-Offs: Know where the main shut-offs are for gas, water, and electricity, and know how to turn them off. Most residential gas services can be turned off using an adjustable wrench, but there are special tools available to make it easier. Once you have shut off your gas service, ONLY a licensed gas technician may turn it back on. Being able to safely turn off a gas main is critical in trailer parks and densely-populated developments and subdivisions.
  • CERT (Community Emergency Response Team): If you want to get some really good solid training in basic disaster response, Citizen Corps is coordinating CERT training (in cooperation with FEMA). Their website has more information.
  • Additional Training: Yeah, I bitch about FEMA a lot, but their Emergency Management Institute offers free on-line training courses. Take a look at the full course list, but I’d recommend the following: IS-22, Are You Ready (with the caveats from Taylor’s article); IS-55, Hazardous Materials for Citizens; IS-111, Livestock in Disasters (if you’re a farmer); IS-317, Intro to CERT (this does not substitute for CERT training, but it will help you decide if you want to pursue it); and IS-394A, Protecting Your Home From Disaster. The Red Cross also has a number of training courses available through their Disaster Services unit. You can also check with your state or local emergency management agency for training and guidance.

Second, you need equipment and supplies.

  • Food: As Blue Girl points out, “Tuna fish and soda crackers and granola bars can get really old really fast”, but there are lots of other options. Pretty much any canned food will work in an emergency (just ask the Boy Scouts): Spaghetti-O’s, chili, fruits and vegetables, even Spam (the meat product, not the email). Badtux ran a series of reviews a while back on MRE’s (Meals, Ready to Eat) and similar fare (you’ll have to search his archives). MRE’s are available through camping stores and mail/Internet order. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE AN OLD-FASHIONED MANUAL CAN OPENER.
  • Water: Figure at least 3-5 gallons per day, per person (and don’t forget pets and livestock) for drinking, food preparation and sanitation. Most grocery stores now have bottled water in the large 5-gallon jugs; those work fine.
  • Medications, etc: Make sure you have additional supplies of prescription drugs or other medications that you use regularly (aspirin, etc). Your doctor may be willing to prescribe additional supplies for an emergency kit.
  • Tools: You should have at least basic hand and rescue tools stored in your emergency shelter: hammer, regular and Phillips screwdrivers, pliers, prybars, hard hat, work gloves, safety goggles, bow or limb saw, etc. If you can get your hands on one of the old-fashioned bumper jacks (the kind with the cup that goes under the bumper, not into a slot on the bumper) that would be handy, too.
  • Sanitation: As Dr. Taylor pointed out, FEMA’s recommendations for personal sanitation in disasters leaves much to be desired. A camping or chemical toilet is a much safer and much more effective solution. Camping stores and recreational vehicle (RV) dealers can provide equipment and supplies.
  • First Aid Kit: You can buy prepared first aid kits everywhere from grocery and drug stores to Lowe’s and Home Depot, and, of course, at your local Red Cross chapter. A simple kit should cost less than $20.00, but you can spend lots more, depending on your individual needs. Make sure it includes non-latex gloves and a breathing barrier (for performing CPR).

You should have scaled-down emergency kits in each vehicle in the family. Remember to add blankets and reflective triangles or flares (fusees), and remember to check all fluid levels, tire pressure, and condition of your spare regularly.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Reducing Fraud and Waste = Terrorist

Want more proof that the george w. bush administration labels as "terrosists" anyone who doesn't agree with them?

Doan compared Miller and his staff to terrorists, according to a copy of the notes obtained by The Washington Post.

"There are two kinds of terrorism in the US: the external kind; and, internally, the IGs have terrorized the Regional Administrators," Doan said, according to the notes.

"Doan" is Lurita Alexis Doan, Administrator of the General Services Administration. GSA manages contracts, real estate and all sorts of other stuff for the Federal government. Brian Miller is the Inspector General of the GSA - he's the person responsible for reducing fraud and waste, and conducting audits and contract reviews.

Why is Doan saying Miller is a terrorist? Because he won't knuckle under to Doan's attempts to reduce his audit and inspection budget, nor is he willing to allow "shifting some responsibility for contract reviews to small, private audit contractors"... which, for the bushies, means no-bid contracts for Halliburton and Bechtel to investigate their own fraudulent and/or wasteful activities.

What are their respective backgrounds? Doan is a bush political appointee and former government contractor; Miller was a Federal prosecutor (he worked on the Moussaoui case).

Why is the Inspector-General concept so important (especially these days)?

Inspector general's offices were given by Congress a mandate to operate as independent watchdogs in the executive branch, working on behalf of taxpayers to guard against wasteful spending. The Inspector General Act of 1978 stated: "Neither the head of the establishment nor the officer next in rank below such head shall prevent or prohibit the Inspector General from initiating, carrying out, or completing any audit or investigation."

The GSA inspector general's office's audits have helped the agency recover billions of dollars in recent years from flawed or fraudulent contracts. Some vendors and government workers have complained that the audits have made contracting more cumbersome than necessary. [Emphasis added]

Yeah, I bet the OIG's have made contracting more cumbersome - you have to show results, not just pay a bribe.

Another brilliant point from Doan's complaining:

Since 2000, the number of employees in the inspector general's office has grown from 297 to 309, according to the office.

Yup, they've added twelve -- count 'em, TWELVE --employees in six years, as opposed to the much more modest growth in, say, the Department of Homeland Security: as of August, 2003 -- six months after it was established -- DHS had 160,000 employees - or 8% of ALL Federal employees. God only knows how many there are now... I tried Googling "total DHS staffing" and found everything but.

Here's the money quote, from John C. Lebo, a former GSA/OIG budget official:

"The Administrator's Office wants to change the IG's overall approach from independently rooting out crime, fraud and abuse, to one in which the OIG is a team player working with GSA."

Yup, that sounds like the bush administration, all right.

Only in America...

From the AP:

What do remote-control garage door openers have to do with national security? A secretive Air Force facility in Colorado Springs tested a radio frequency this past week that it would use to communicate with first responders in the event of a homeland security threat. But the frequency also controls an estimated 50 million garage door openers, and hundreds of residents in the area found that theirs had suddenly stopped working.

Technically, the Air Force has the right to the frequency, which it began using nearly three years ago at some bases. Signals have previously interfered with garage doors near bases in Florida, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Unless things have changed even more drastically than I thought, garage door controllers were in a separate part of the radio spectrum from most voice channels. Obviously, the controllers themselves use a very low output power (much less than the toy walkie-talkies we played with as kids), and a tower atop Cheyenne Mountain would likely overpower the controllers, but still....

I can hear it now:

"We're opening your garage doors here so we won't have to do it there... when we ship you off to Gitmo as a Demoslamifascis---- errr, terrist. If you control your own garage door, the terrists have won. Heh, heh."

I heard somewhere -- and I don't know if it's true or not -- that the Cheyenne Mountain facility (or at least the national command post inside the mountain) is being mothballed. It was built in the late 50's or early 60's -- during the height of the Cold War -- to function in case of a nuclear attack on Washington. Subsequent "advancements" in weapons technology, however, have made the bunker just as vulnerable as anyplace else on earth.

Blue Girl on the Baker Commission

The ever-talented Blue Girl In A Red State had a piece up the other day on the Baker Commission report. In that she made the salient points much better than I would have, here is her take on it, reprinted with her permission:

Baker Commission Consensus

Well the report we have all been waiting for with bated breath is ready but they are holding it back for another week.

This week is important. That is all the time they have to shift ownership of this swamp to the Democrats. Step one: They are sending Lee Hamilton out as the advance man, and they are calling it the Baker-Hamilton Commission.

What a bunch of crap. I bang my head on my desk in frustration and anger. Why do we let these bastards get away with this garbage? We aren't going to anymore, right? We are going to hold the replacements accountable, right?

Here's the deal. The netroots needs to stick together. We need to be signed up for the emails from our senators and representatives whether they are our party or not. When they vote a way we disagree with, we need to let them know. When they do the right thing, we need to let them know that, too. Do not, for a second, let them forget just who the fuck it is they work for.

We need to embark on a new age of accountability on behalf of our public officials, from your city councilman to the President. Keep an eye on every one of the bastards and ride them like a rented pony.

People have said they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore for years. Do you mean it yet? Now is your chance to prove it. When they catapult the propaganda, push back. Call it the Baker Commission. Remind the world that Jim Baker is the Bush family consigliere, the fixer. The guy Cheney shot in the face? Baker's brother-in-law.

This is Juniors fuck up and Daddy's friends are having to bail his punk ass out. This is not a bipartisan misadventure and don't let them repackage it as such.

Do not let the message get recast. Stay on top of it, damnit and keep the bastards honest. It's a hell of a job but when the founders gave us this republic they told us it was ours as long as we could keep it. They never said the retention process would be easy, but most things worth keeping aren't easy to hold on to.

As I say, she has nailed it completely.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Yeah. What Bobby Sez.

Mustang Bobby hits the nail on the head at Bark Bark Woof Woof:

This is the dictatorship mentality; the people must be led by an all-knowing, all-seeing ruler who is the only one who knows what is best for the nation; he is the only one who is in true touch with what God really wants for America and the world. All glory, laud and honor to our Dear Leader, George W. Bush. Everyone else is deluded, wrong, or weak, and now our enemies are rubbing their hands with glee because the American electorate chose the Democrats.


Thursday, November 30, 2006

Emergency Preparedness - Part Two

[Update: Fixed some formatting and spelling errors, and deleted a duplicate post}

In Part One, we examined a very good article by Dr. Eric Taylor and his take on the FEMA emergency preparedness manual. In Dr. Taylor's view, the manual falls short in many critical areas. In this part, we'll take a look at what other emergency response professional think of our state of preparedness.

James M. Shannon, president of the National Fire Protection Association, writing in the current issue of the NFPA Journal, has this to say about preparedness as it affects the fire service:

Let me be blunt. Most American communities were not prepared to cope with a homeland security event when 9/11/2001 occurred. Most are not prepared now. And most will not be prepared in the future at the pace we are moving.

Shannon is reporting on a recent study completed by NFPA for the U.S. Fire Administration, which is part of FEMA. Here are some of the points he makes: [All emphasis added]

For instance, there was some improvement in planning by fire departments to coordinate the use of outside personnel and equipment in a homeland security response for a wildfire or terrorist attack. But the study found that most departments still do not have written plans for these kinds of incidents.

There has been some progress made in providing SCBA [Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus, or "Scott Packs"] and PASS [Personal Alert Safety System, which emits an ear-splitting tone of a firefighter does not move for a predetermined period of time - ie, if he's unconscious or trapped, - which assists other firefighters in finding their fallen comrade] devices. But even after all of the attention that has been paid to improving preparedness, 60 percent of departments do not have enough SCBAs and 48 percent do not have enough PASS devices to equip everyone on a shift.

The number of firefighters with insufficient training or certification has declined, but even for something as fundamental and near-universal as structural firefighting, more than half of departments still do not have all involved firefighters formally trained.

Overall, in area after area, the second needs assessment shows that there has been little or no progress, not because the grants program has been misdirected or ineffective but because the needs are so great relative to the size of the program.

How does this affect the preparedness efforts we as citizens must make? If the fire service -- for whatever reason -- is unable to respond in the event of a major emergency, we are on our own.

This is why it is so critical for all citizens to have at least a few fire extinguishers around the house, and the knowledge of how and when to use them... and more importantly, when not to use them and get the hell out instead. Your local fire department can supply a huge amount of useful information (and maybe even training) in home fire safety, as can NFPA and USFA. reporter Zack Phillips wrote about emergency preparedness exercises, and how they may tend to provide artifically rosy results. Beginning with FEMA's now-infamous "Hurricane Pam" exercise in 2004, Phillips examines the strong and weak points of drills and exercises and cites Michael J. Hopmeier, who:

...points to the example in September of joy-riding teenagers driving past the guard posts at the Miami military base that houses U.S. Central Command, and a retired police officer using fake identification who entered Homeland Security Department headquarters in June. "When it wasn't a test, when it wasn't the [inspector general] going through, when it wasn't an assessment; when it was a real-world event, it turned out the security failed," he says. [Emphasis added]

Phillips also notes how the costs associated with exercises have skyrocketed: TOPOFF1 ("Top Officials", the granddaddy of all exercise programs), in 2000, cost $3 million, 2005's TOPOFF3 cost $12 million.

Phillips goes on to point out the effects of pre-planning in an exercise: the advance notice to participants may result in overly-prepared responses, rather than the spur-of-the-moment actions that actually occur:

"If you know there's going to be a test of everything, then you've already bought the answer, or you've excluded a lot of the problems," says William Bicknell, a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health and a former Massachusetts public health director.

Its similar to knowing there is going to be a fire drill at work at 9:30 AM on Thursday: you're going to keep your coat handy, you'll make sure you're not on the phone, and so on. Yet, in a real fire, smoke may obscure the path to an exit, especially if you're forced to use an exit other than your normal one. In some ways, a drill or other emergency exercise presents a "best-case" scenario, rather than the "worst-case" that always seems to develop in a legitimate emergency.

Phillips' conclusion appears to be that exercises do offer concrete opportunities for improvement, but there are some deficiencies that need to be rectified to achieve full value from the programs.

Emergency Preparedness - A Review of the Literature

[Update, 12-01: fixed a couple of formatting errors. I'll have to make my way through Drak Wraith's "HTML for Bloggers" course...]

Note: This is Part One of a multi-part series examining the state of emergency preparedness in the United States, especially as it affects ordinary citizens.

I’ve been bitching a lot recently about DHS (Department of Homeland Security), its subordinate agencies and directorates, and the generally poor state of emergency preparedness. It occurred to me, however, that I might have been alone in those estimations, so I decided to undertake what the academics refer to as “a review of the current literature”, to see what other practitioners had to say.

First, in the current issue of The Internet Journal of Rescue and Disaster Medicine, Eric R. Taylor, Ph.D. (University of Louisiana at Lafayette) examines the two versions of FEMA’s much ballyhooed citizen’s disaster manual, Are You Ready? Both editions – the original, and an updated “In-Depth” version – claim to provide definitive information for citizens in the event of technological or natural disasters. [All emphasis added]

I will follow Taylor’s headings in this article, just in case the reader wants to verify quotes, etc.

From the abstract to Dr. Taylor’s article:

The FEMA document for terrorism preparedness intended for use by the public does not offer useful information the public can use to actively take steps in their own defense and protection against weapons agents that may confront them in an active terrorist attack. The public remains unprepared to act on their own behalf, and by the time official notice of an attack in determined and announced, many people may suffer injury or die for lack of realistic preparation.

This, despite FEMA’s exhortation:

“... don't wait until disaster strikes before you tell the people what to do. Your motto should be the same as the scouts. You want the people to BE PREPARED!”


Dr. Taylor asserts that the American populace has been conditioned to that the government can “care for them, defend them, assist them in virtually any phase of social and natural disasters and assaults that come their way”. He adds, however, “It should be painfully clear now that government cannot do so” and that “the primary document advanced by FEMA does a poor job of educating the public on terrorism related preparedness.

U.S. Terrorism Preparation

Taylor initially discusses the overall terrorism preparedness posture, making the following points:

  • “It is the public that is now in need of useful, do-able information for preparing and responding to a terrorist attack, especially WMCD [1]”
  • “What is needed is a single source of information written in a form and at a level of technical depth designed for the general public in a single source document from a single federal agency.”

Taylor further cites the testimony of government officials before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearings in February, 2005. Vice Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) addressed al Qaeda’s capability to employ and deliver unconventional weapons, saying, “Because they are easier to employ, we believe terrorists are more likely to use biological agents such as ricin or botulinum toxin or toxic industrial chemicals to cause casualties and attack the psyche of the targeted populations.” This is particularly disturbing in light of the repercussions of several recent haz-mat (hazardous materials) incidents recently, such as the Apex fire or the Graniteville train derailment, both of which resulted in fatalities, wide-spread evacuations, release of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, and significant property loss.

Porter Goss, Director of the CIA, said, “al Qaeda is intent on finding ways to circumvent U.S. security enhancements to strike Americans and the Homeland [sic].” As I have pointed out (along with many others), the “security enhancements” to which Goss refers are virtually non-existent. Rail yards full of toxic chemicals are left wide open and unguarded, less than six percent of the freight containers entering the county from overseas are inspected [2], the food chain is virtually defenseless, the public water supply ditto. The screw-ups at TSA can catch nail clippers and shampoo, but manage to miss bombs (fake, thank God) in carry-on luggage.

Nature of the Threat

Taylor posits, however, that “nothing offers a greater long-term hazard and threat on a more likely level of occurrence than bioterrorism….”, adding, “If the technical know-how, or the actual agent samples fall into the wrong hands (such as rogue states and/or through them, terrorists), our safety is seriously compromised by these “artificial” and virulent agents for which no human has any natural resistance and no medical practitioner has the means to fight.”

Unfortunately, we may ourselves be supplying the technical know-how to those who wish us harm. Thousands of international students – many from Muslim countries – study at American universities. Obviously, the vast majority of these students are simply interested in learning and bettering the world as a whole. But there is a small percentage – certainly less than 1% overall – who want to use our knowledge against us (witness Atta and his cohorts taking flight lessons in American flight schools). And don’t think that immigration and border control authorities are doing anything to stem the flow. I used to work for a university police department, and I can tell you from experience, visa control and enforcement is a joke. The federal agencies have neither the manpower nor the budget to effectively track the thousands of alien students, while the universities turn a blind eye in the interests of tuition income.

FEMA’s Public Terrorism Education

In reviewing the first edition of Are You Ready?, Taylor highlights many problems:

  • The initial guide “was fraught with brevity that bordered on uselessness for the technological material, especially the terrorism and WMCD It also overlooked more commonly useful items for implementation of its recommendations for action, and in some cases offered potentially hazardous information if carried out by the public.”
  • “A comparison of the two different versions reveals the overall inadequacies of the approach FEMA took, and retained in the latest version available to the public.”
  • “The Shelter section advised making an emergency toilet if necessary. It suggested sprinkling a household disinfectant such as household bleach into the container to reduce odor and germs. As anyone who has read the label of a bleach bottle (or an ammonia bottle) knows, the warning is quite specific and emphatic: DO NOT MIX BLEACH with AMMONIA. Human urine contains ammonia and will generate more on standing. The bleach added to ammonia- generating materials can produce any one or all of several poisonous chemicals (chlorine, nitrogen trichloride, or hydrazine) depending upon the proportions and concentrations of bleach and urine-based ammonia, mixture temperature and standing time. The recommendation served to replace the obnoxious with the noxious. These poisonous by-products are potent respiratory irritants. This problem is increased by many people utilizing the same receptacle repeatedly over time in a presumably confined, unventilated space. The fumes can build up very quickly.”

The last emphasized portion deserves repeating:

The recommendation served to replace the obnoxious with the noxious.

Back to Taylor’s review of the first edition:

  • “The same section of the initial guide also notes that water can be purified by distillation. The means suggested– placing a cup under an inverted lid within a pot of boiling water– seems clumsy, probably hazardous to perform, but certainly inefficient, not to mention energy and time consuming for very meager returns. The last thing those in an emergency situation need is a second or third degree burn from distilling water. Distilling enough water this way for a few people to serve their minimum daily needs is doubtful. If you lose electricity or natural gas through the incident, you can't distill anyway.”

The In-Depth August 2004 Guide

Moving on to the second, “in-depth” 2004 edition, Taylor notes: [Citations omitted]

  • “The Chemical Threat section of the In-Depth Guide does not even mention the four types of lethal chemical weapons. It does not indicate the relative rapidity of action of one class to another. It does offer a string of signs or symptoms of lethal chemical weapons employment in a terrorist attack. But the string of symptoms are generic, could be in some cases those of allergic responses, and suggests by its manner of presentation that they may all become present. There is no elaboration of any kind to offer agent class specificity. This in what is called an In-Depth guide. And the same cite makes the statement, while potentially lethal, chemical agents are difficult to deliver in lethal concentrations. This is an unjustified generalization that is disarmingly misleading and false. Both the original Guide and the In-Depth Guide state that chemical agents are difficult to produce. This is patently false. Chemical agents were originally made and used in WWI and they were made and used specifically because they were made from exiting industrial chemical precursors, cheap to make and within handling safety considerations, easy to make and use.”
  • “The section [on biological threats] refers the reader to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website ( for specific information. . . . . Much of the available information is primarily for professionals rather than lay people and may be rather technical for them. The problem with referring readers of the In-Depth guide (hardcopy) to a website is that many people may not have web access.”
  • “[E]xposure to levels of chemical agent that may be sublethal to adults may well be lethal to children and pets as lethal dose is body weight dependent (LD50). This of necessity brings into play the need and concern for personal residences decontamination and especially surfaces outside that are frequented by all, especially children and pets. FEMA's In-Depth guide offers no advise on how to deal with this likely problem, much less how to undertake necessary hasty decontamination of residential exterior surfaces and what to use for doing so.”
  • “The current FEMA In-Depth guide does avoid the technically overwhelming feature. It also avoids the completeness, the thoroughness, the robustness required of a document purported to be In-Depth….”
  • “Many people bought “gas” […] masks as respiratory protection during the anthrax-mail attacks. […] The typical American has no idea of how to assess the appropriateness or serviceability of the mask or the filter elements.”

Perhaps Dr. Taylor’s most telling comment is this:

“After tens of billions of dollars spent on terrorism preparedness, with hundreds of expert chemists, biologists, physicists, and physicians on the government payroll, FEMA's In-Depth Guide is the best the federal government can offer the public? The public may face serious trouble ahead.

In subsequent parts of this series, we’ll look at what others in the emergency response community have to say about the overall preparedness posture.

[1] Taylor prefers the term “weapons of mass casualty and destruction”, over the government’s preferred “WMD” or CBRNE, which stands for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive.
[2] Anderson, Teresa. “Cargo Security: Containing Cargo Risk” Security Management, Sept, 2005