Yes, it can seem at times that governing at the local level pretty much translates into keeping the roads plowed and the jails open. But for the county leaders who participated in early December’s Safe and Secure Symposium, leadership took on a whole new dimension.
NACo President Sallie Clark’s Safe and Secure initiative embraces the priorities of several former NACo presidents and spotlights the many challenges county leaders must confront as they build healthy vibrant and safe communities.
The two and a half day symposium, Dec.2–4, preceded NACo’s fall Board meeting held this year in El Paso County, (Colorado Springs), Colo., Clark’s home county.
It targeted three challenge areas: cybersecurity; disaster response, recovery and preparation for future disasters; and the criminal justice system and its relation to people with mental illness.
Like previous high-level NACo symposiums, this one packed a lot in its schedule. Four mobile workshops and eight sessions were offered, which wove site visits with expert speakers and presentations on risk management, crisis communications, local efforts to de-criminalize mental illness, cybersecurity and preparing for and recovering from both natural and man-made disasters.
Symposium participants hit the road Dec. 2 with a trip to Peterson Air Force Base, home to the Air Force’s Space Command and cybersecurity defense for the Joint Command and the country.
The base’s second in command, Maj. Gen. Dave Thompson, welcomed NACo members and set up the presentations, which explained the core responsibilities of the Space Command and its 67th Cyberspace wing.
The Space Command capabilities, according to Maj. John Gearing involve “space situational awareness,” which is military–speak for keeping track of some 23,000 larger objects orbiting the earth; missile warning, military satellite communications; two rocket launch bases and “Position Navigation Timing,” maintained by 32 satellites and better known as GPS.
While threats from space may seem more dramatic, threats from cyberspace are more dangerous, Gearing said.
Next up: Col. Michael Moyles, the chief technology officer for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) at Peterson, explored those threats and outlined the scope of his responsibilities: protecting the Air Force — its 122 bases and 85,000 users — from cyber intrusions; managing vulnerability by patching and updating servers and client systems; and providing enterprise services to all Air Force users such as e-mail, directory and authentication services and data storage.
Cybersecurity issues bookended the symposium. At the closing luncheon, experts from the cyber industry offered their assessments of the greatest threats facing county leaders. Perhaps the most pressing: a shortage of cybersecurity professionals. Steve Hurst, AT&T’s security services director, said there is now a 1 million to 1.5 million gap in needed security personnel. The shortage has led to skyrocketing salaries, where it’s not uncommon to see annual salaries ranging from $178,000 to $233,000. What can counties do? Hurst said they could work with local schools to produce more trained cybersecurity professionals, make use of interns from community colleges or outsource. AT&T along with Cisco offer to help school systems establish STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and STEAM (same as STEM, but with the Arts added) programs, he said.
Another promising avenue to addressing the cyber staffing gap is being explored by Cisco, which is developing ways to automate responses to threats, according to Peter Romness, cybersecurity program lead with Cisco.
Probably not surprising was the assessment voiced by all three panelists that threats are increasing; nonetheless their opportunity for damage is unsettling.
For example, Romness said advanced threats could stay in networks, on average, 200 days stealing data before they are discovered. And as the “Internet of things” expands, even more entry points became available for hackers. Already 40 percent of all medical devices are networked now, he said. In the not-so-distant future, it will probably be 65 percent.
Despite the significant threats from intruders in county networks and the data they store, the most dangerous threat lurks closer to home.
“Employees are the weakest link in the cybersecurity chain,” Hurst said. To address their threat, he said, “There needs to be a high-level focus that supports regular, persistent employee training.
A high-level focus is also called for in times of natural disasters. Several symposium sessions offered strategies county leaders can undertake to address the demands disasters bring to the table.SHADED BOX
Cyber Safety Suggestions
Panel discussions on cybersecurity can often produce many bullet-point lists. The discussion in El Paso County, Colo. was no exception. Here are some examples:
From Tom MacLellan, FireEye’s director of national homeland security policy and government affairs: Seven questions county leaders should ask:
- Who’s already in your network? Who’s been in your network?
- Do you understand your risk profile?
- How are you reducing your liability? By using cyber insurance, for example?
- Do your budgeting practices support effective cybersecurity defense?
- Are you using intelligence and information effectively?
- Can your critical systems defend against advanced persistent threats, also known as APTs in cyber speech
- Are you ready to respond when an attack occurs?
From Steve Hurst, AT&T security services director: How to Protect Your County’s Systems:
- Put policy in place
- Keep current with patching
- Undertake risk assessment
Risk Management Assessment
A designated professional emergency manager can assess actual risk in a disaster scenario — as opposed to perceived risk — and can prepare recommendations for county officials to receive and act on, according to Judd Freed, Ramsey County, Minn.’s emergency management and homeland security director. It’s a job best done by someone buffered from the pressure that comes from the public.
“Government doesn’t look downwind; that’s what a professional emergency manager does,” he said.
“Part of planning for disasters means focusing on the most probable situations and studying the interdependencies in a community,” Freed explained. “Most of the time we neglect probability because people are really interested in what they think they need to know,” and that is effectively taking their eye off the ball.
Understanding the true risk, discovering hidden vulnerabilities and preparing for the unexpected threats go a long way toward remediating them.
Freed pointed out that although the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) predicted years before that New Orleans would flood, the conventional wisdom was that the rainfall, not levee failure, would be the culprit.
Another presenter at the workshop discussing risk management was Ajita Atreya, a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, whose studies on flooding led her to formulate what she thinks is the most comprehensive measure of resiliency.
She quantifies resilience as a synthesis of five kinds of a community’s capital — financial, natural, human, physical and social — and its robustness, repeatability, redundancy and resourcefulness.
While established resiliency evaluations did not fully measure a community’s resilience, the National Flood Insurance Program’s Community Rating System’s scores could be interpreted to that end.
The system is a program that gives flood insurance discounts for remediation plans designed to lower flooding risk. Not only do those measures, like open space preservation and flood plain buyouts, mean discounts for policy holders, they make a community safer and more resilient.
Margaret Larson, manager for assurance services at Ernst and Young, advised quantifying the cost of recovery with and without preparation to make the case for taking those steps.
She stressed communication.
“When you think about information sharing — are we doing it enough?” she asked. “The answer is, probably not. It can be done at every level, in every department.”
The way a message is delivered can mean as much as the words in the message, probably half as much.
Randall Hyer, assistant director at the Center for Risk Communication and principal of CrisisCommunication.net, explained during a plenary session that relating to the audience was the most influential way to build trust, particularly in a situation where clear communication was necessary to fortify public safety.
“A single statement of empathy goes a long way,” he said, asking rhetorically, “Does this person care about what happens to me and my family?” regarding a public figure making a statement in an emergency. “They assess that immediately. They want to know you care before they care what you know.”
The first thing a public official should express in an emergency situation is concern for those affected.
Hammering in that perception is more influential than reality. Hyer referred to Dow Corning CEO Richard Hazleton’s 1995 appearance on Oprah in which his blasé reactions to questioning about the risks posed by the company’s silicone breast implants — which were later dismissed — led to his firing and nine years of bankruptcy protection for the company.
“Establishing that emotional connection ensures accurate public communication,” he said. “We need better messages, better messengers and better ways of delivering messages.”
When addressing an emergency, Hyer said, a statement of empathy should always lead off and, if possible, the speaker should align himself or herself with a credible organization before moving on to the key message.
“When you’re breaking bad news, trust brings credibility,” he said.
One of the largest-looming problems for public communication is proliferation of social media and the hastening of the reactions to news.
“People in another city can hear about an earthquake on Twitter before they feel the shocks,” he said. “You cannot completely control your message” when social media is part of the communication environment.
As far as crafting messages, Hyer said 27 words, comprising three nine-word statements, was the extent to which the public could readily consume news in a high-stress situation.
“You need to be able to craft messages at a sixth-to-eighth-grade level,” he said. “If you understand it well enough, you can express it in simple language.”
Officials should avoid negative words, which will reinforce natural fear that and give the audience a way to find out more information. Numbers can be tricky, too.
When dealing with the press, officials should keep in mind that they are not on equal footing with reporters. While their status as elected representatives gives them a legitimacy to speak for the government, the media possesses leverage because it, as a third party, has an audience that trusts it.
Answering questions from the press can present a number of pitfalls that a trained spokesman or spokeswoman should sidestep. Resist the urge to speculate. Don’t make any guarantees about the future. Avoid describing any worst-case scenarios. Relate concern for the vulnerable as is appropriate.
Hyer, a trained epidemiologist, quoted former World Health Organization Director-General Jong-Wood Lee to emphasize clear communication’s role in a crisis.
“We have had great success…in controlling outbreaks, but we have only recently come to understand that communications are as critical to outbreak control as laboratory analyses or epidemiology,” he said.
In longer messages, officials should clearly outline the important things for the audience to know, and communicate more complex ideas through storytelling.
“Storytelling is an effective way to change behavior,” Hyer said.
One Story, with Three Parts
For host county El Paso County, Colo., the biggest story in disaster preparedness in the last three-and-a-half years has been the fires — Waldo Canyon and Black Forest — and the flooding that resulted in Waldo Canyon.
On a mobile tour, NACo President Sallie Clark got to show her county colleagues firsthand what natural disasters had done to her commission district.
On June 23, 2012, a day that became a blur for her as she was shuttled around the area, Clark saw smoke billowing from the fire while she sat in a meeting miles away. She got up to the canyon and the sight was unforgettable. By the time the fire was out July 10, it had destroyed 347 homes, forced the evacuation of more than 32,000 residents and caused two deaths. The fire was determined to have been man-made.
“There were trees just burning,” she said. “It was a scary thing to be in the middle of a fire zone. Eventually the sheriff told us we had to leave because they didn’t want us up there.”
Now, trees burned down to their trunks stand like toothpicks sticking out of higher ground in the mountains. The burn scar doesn’t accept much water, so heavy rains have no choice but to run downhill — more than 33,375 acres were burned so badly that nothing will grow back there.
The first major flood pushed ash into the sewer systems and caused backups. Subsequent flooding also destroyed some mountain highways.
Clark continues to tell the story of the fire’s consequences, both in advocating for the authority to manage forests to limit potential tinderboxes and to remind federal legislators that the recovery is not over.
Flood remediation efforts in Waldo Canyon have improved the area’s resiliency, but even with matching funds, the county’s financial contribution was significant.
One of the remaining consequences of the fire is the forced closure of some reservoirs. Clark collected ashen debris in a water bottle, in what was a great fishing spot, dried it out and put the ashes in test tubes, labeled “Waldo Canyon fire,” took them to Washington, D.C. and gave them to members of her congressional delegation.
“She told them: Take this vial, fill it up with water, shake it and drink it; because that’s what you’re asking us to do,” she recounted at the symposium. “When I went back, now-Sen. Cory Gardner (R) went looking for his vial so he could let us know that he knew we were still dealing with problems.”
For counties that have never faced a wildfire, these numbers may seem pretty astounding. It costs $50,000 per day for one of those VLATs (Very Large Air Tanker) to sit on the tarmac. When it’s airborne, it costs $20,000 per hour to fly, and its payload of flame retardant averages $12,000–$14,000 a run.
Meanwhile, wildfires accounted for $1.7 billion in losses in 2013. And this year, losses are expected to top $2 billion. That’s a lot of money up in smoke. But as the TV commercial says: “Wait, there’s more.” In the words of John Chavez, with El Paso County, “Wildfires are rolling disasters: After the fire comes the flooding.”
Chavez, along with Katie Lighthall, a coordinator with the Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy; R.C. Smith, operations manager and recovery coordinator for El Paso County’s Public Service Department; and George H. Connor, deputy director, Office of Community and Economic Development in Dauphin County, Pa. offered strategies to address forest resiliency, reduce threat and spur quick response and recovery.
One key component of a cohesive wildland protection strategy is a “willingness to take short-term risks for long-term benefits,” Lighthall said. What that really means is a willingness to let a fire burn in order to create a resilient landscape. “Do you fight the fire to protect the one lone guy’s cabin in the middle of nowhere, or do you make sure the guy is safe, and let the fire burn,” she said by way of illustration.
It’s important for county leaders to create an understanding and acceptance of risk in their communities, she advised and suggested that local leaders can help by enacting smarter building codes for wildfire hazard zones; planning well for evacuations and entering into mutual-aid pacts with neighboring jurisdictions.
El Paso County had more than its share of natural disasters with the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires in 2012 and 2013. Together they destroyed more than 32,500 acres, 832 homes and cost four lives. The flooding that came in their aftermath also destroyed property and put lives at risk.
Chavez presented some of the factors that frame the direction and extent of recovery efforts after a flood; things like public health concerns, funding sources, impacted jurisdictions and infrastructure damage. He also emphasized the importance of public communications efforts, learning the rules of the funding source you’re using and collaboration — a very popular concept often mentioned as a critical strategy throughout the symposium.
Also explored during the symposium: The important role jails play in the criminal justice system, their impact on recidivism rates, their costs to counties and their responsibility for the well-being of persons with mental illness who get caught up in their cells. An extensive report on the sessions offered around these topics will appear in the Jan. 11, 2016 issue of County News. Be sure to watch for it.
Author, former CNN reporter brings Katrina lessons to symposium
“The media tends to tell you that chaos reigns after a disaster. That’s an incomplete and inaccurate picture,” according to Kathleen Koch, an award-winning journalist and author. She should know. Koch was a CNN correspondent for 18 years and among many high-profile assignments covered 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina for the network.
Her experiences reporting on the disastrous Gulf Coast storm and the recovery of her hometown, Bay St. Louis, Miss., led her to write a book, Rising from Katrina and start a nonprofit organization — LeadersLink — to share elected officials’ disaster lessons.
She learned valuable lessons, too, which she shared with members of the Dec. 3 luncheon audience in a well-crafted talk, which used vintage news clips to punctuate her message.
She spoke of visiting Bay St. Louis, after Katrina struck, and feeling unsettled as she walked through her hometown and became lost. “Imagine the unimaginable,” she said. She found her family home destroyed, but learned another lesson: “Buildings don’t make up a community, people make up a community. If you can get the people back, you can get the community back.”
New cooperation arises during and after a disaster. Koch said social scientists speak of a six-month grace period after a major disaster where citizens tend to set aside their personal concerns for the good of the community.
Disasters also attract volunteers eager to help. One million volunteers came to the Gulf Coast in Katrina’s aftermath, Koch said. Local leaders need to consider how they will be housed, fed and organized.
Witnessing the critical and essential role local leaders play when disasters strike prompted Koch to found LeadersLink, to create a network of the best local leaders in disaster response and recovery to act as mentors to other leaders facing similar crises. She is developing a website now for the organization, but information can be found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/leaderslink.
Bev Schlotterbeck, County News executive editor, wrote this report