Editorial: Homeland Security Standards

Executive Editor Alan S. Brown Explains Why Standards Are Important

by Alan S. Brown

When I left for the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) homeland security conference, I was not sure what to expect. Maybe I'm cynical, but I had to wonder if this was yet another example of an organization raising the 9/11 flag to further its own agenda.

Instead, the meeting reaffirmed my belief that standards are important. I was amazed by how much has already been accomplished, but also troubled by some of the bigger issues raised at the conference.

Bert Coursey, director of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Research and Development, highlighted the importance of standards: They ensure the effectiveness of components and systems. They guarantee a minimum level of functionality, adequacy for task, durability, sustainability and – very important these days – interoperability.

On one hand, standards take such general ideas as interoperability or personal protection and translate them into workable specifications. They also ensure that products meet those specifications. This is critical for smaller departments and volunteers who do not always have the time, money or expertise for extensive field tests.

The amount of standards-related work in progress is astonishing. After 9/11, everything related to homeland security – from training and certification to cybersecurity – has been kicked into high gear.

This is not business as usual. It takes years to build a consensus standard. Within months of 9/11, though, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health promulgated rules on chemical protective ensembles and respirators, respectively, that might otherwise have taken years to publish.

Federal agencies and national laboratories, meanwhile, have stepped up research programs that will enable code-makers and responders to evaluate homeland security products in the future.

All this activity poses a problem for ANSI, which does not itself write code but serves as a forum for code-writing bodies. There is so much working going on, no can keep track of it. This results in duplication of effort at best or contradictory codes at worst. One of ANSI's goals is to standardize the standards.

There's certainly plenty of work to do. Several speakers highlighted the need to substantiate claims of tests for biological agents. Many want standards for interoperable communications, a field where technology and politics loom as large as responder needs. Others want to know how we create the responder certifications required by the National Response Plan.

Joseph W. Pfeifer, the first Fire Department of New York chief on the WTC scene and now head of planning and strategy, brought his own wish list. It included better detection equipment, rebreather trucks (so responders could work longer), mass decontamination trailers, fireboats (the WTC collapse shut the mains but the boats could draw water from the river), and better operations management software.

The most interesting question was posed by James Gilmore III, the former Virginia governor who headed the Congressional committee on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction initiated in 1999. He asked, "What does preparedness look like? What's the end state?"

It is a profound question. We can only answer it with a thorough (you'll know it's thorough if you feel uncomfortable) public discussion about how much risk we – citizens and responders – are prepared to accept. But without that answer, it's hard to know what threat we should plan, train and equip ourselves for.

For example, many responders believe federal funds should subsidize all-hazards equipment and training. Gilmore wants the money released only if the purchase supports national homeland defense strategy. Sometimes the two are the same. Interoperable radios support both. But what about rebreather trucks and fire boats? What about computerized notification systems?

These are questions that will take years to answer. And more than likely, the priorities we set will show up in the standards we set.

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