Editorial: Leadership Key for Homeland Security

April 13, 2005
Leadership and funding will make or break the Department of Homeland Security as it moves forward to meet security and preparedness challenges in our ever-changing world.

By Sandy Smith

When new Homeland Defense Secretary Michael Chertoff presented the department's budget to Congress March 2, he made note of President Bush's request for a 7 percent increase in funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The money, said Chertoff, will be used to "expand and improve existing programs as well as put in place new initiatives that will further strengthen and protect our homeland."

The focus of many of Chertoff's comments was the threat of terrorism, and he told members of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Sub-Committee that the Department of Homeland Security must look not only at the past practices of the terrorists and existing intelligence information, but "must also think creatively about the dynamic threats that the terrorists will pose in future."

The DHS marked its 2-year anniversary in March, and Chertoff said the department has "the opportunity and obligation to benefit from experience and hindsight, look at how the pieces are fitting together, and see if the structure and systems we have in place today enable us to perform our core mission of protecting and safeguarding this nation."

Chertoff told members of Congress that while DHS was created to respond to the threat of terrorism, its other functions – including responding to natural disasters, securing the coasts and providing immigration services and enforcement – are all essential parts of the mission of the department.

Garry Briese, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IACF), suggests in an interview in this issue that homeland response funding could best be used to "enhance existing capabilities and not create new ones. Where we have state law enforcement and fire training centers, we should build up their capabilities rather than create new facilities and training programs."

Responding to homegrown hazards was high on Briese's list of concerns. In many jurisdictions, multiple agencies have been given money to respond to hazmat or chemical agent incidents. "Is the community better served by having two organizations respond instead of one?" Briese asks. The answer, he adds, is yes, but adds this caveat: "We're not going to be twice as safe."

The key to any type of response, says Briese – whether it is to a terrorist act, a chemical spill or a natural disaster – is strong leadership from all the major players. The leaders of the responding organizations have to be willing to exchange information and intelligence in order to improve their effectiveness "because it's the right thing to do," says Briese. "So much of this stuff comes down to something as straightforward as leadership. You can have all the money in the world, but if you don't have leadership, you'll misspend the money."

Sometimes each of us takes the lead and sometimes we follow, but Briese is correct: Leadership is key to protecting this country from all manner of disasters. We all have to be well trained to respond, prepared to respond and quick to respond. This includes our leadership in Washington, as well as the last person hired at the local volunteer fire department.

When George W. Bush spoke at Chertoff's swearing in, I was struck by the president's description of Chertoff as "a talented public servant." I don't know about you, but I don't want a public servant leading the Department of Homeland Security. I want an entrepreneurial warrior, who, as Chertoff himself said that day, will strive "to advance the exceptional achievements of the first two years of this department, to meet and manage the threats of today, and to prepare to confront the risks of the future."

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of EHS Today, create an account today!