Stateline Story

Security Push Discourages Innovation

  • October 23, 2002
  • By John Nagy
Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Hawaii Department of Defense put finishing touches on a color-coded system to help government officials and business leaders assess future threats to their state.

Less than six months later, the White House Office of Homeland Security (OHS) adopted a similar system to alert all Americans to possible terrorist activity.

"The idea was shared with Gov. [Tom] Ridge's office and our understanding is it was used as a template for the national system," said Major Charles Anthony, a spokesperson for the Hawaii National Guard.

Like many innovative approaches to policy questions, Hawaii's five-color security assessment and response system was the result of months of careful deliberation. Like other innovations, it is also a reminder that one group's bright idea can be another's policy headache.

The national alert system has created confusion over the different colors and their meaning for state and local governments, businesses and private citizens. Anthony said Hawaii's "internal" system, designed solely for emergency responders, the military, state agencies, and managers of important infrastructure like banks and utilities, never had that problem until OHS unveiled its version.

"It was never really intended, at least from our side, as a general barometer that the public could use," he said.

The trouble Hawaii's program had in translation is only one reason why the scramble to defend the U.S. from terrorism has left little room for creative thinking.

State officials and policy analysts point to other factors they say have inhibited cutting-edge initiatives. The list includes tight state budgets, the slow pace of federal aid and dependence on federal guidance, and the urgent need to address long-standing problems like agency turf battles and neglect of the public health system.

That doesn't mean things aren't getting done. Ann Beauchesne, director of the National Governors' Association's new Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division, points to states that lead the pack in addressing basic readiness gaps revealed by last year's attacks.

In July, Connecticut began issuing driver's licenses that use biometric facial recognition technology and other complex identification security features. Kansas has invested heavily in agroterrorism research. Pennsylvania developed a criminal records network that law enforcement agencies may access from anywhere in the state.

"It's a year of opportunity," said Washington Health Secretary Mary Selecky. Washington, Florida (see sidebar) and Texas are a few of the states that have divided themselves into regions for the purpose of organizing anti-terror efforts. Selecky also agrees with many in government who say the year has seen breakthroughs in communication among agencies.

But policy analyst Chad Foster of the Council of State Governments said spotting truly inventive programs "is really tricky right now because so much is going on."

Even with top priority items like information sharing, drinking water security and public health, the name of the game has been keeping up, rather than getting ahead.

Working with the FBI, state chief information officers plan to construct a 50-state anti-terror intelligence sharing and analysis center of the kind already up and running in Georgia and a handful of other states.

"We're still refining what it is we want to do. The federal government is thinking through its strategy," said spokesperson Chris Dixon of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO).

In efforts to safeguard the naion's drinking water systems, experts point to Texas and Washington as models. Both states have focused on helping the smaller, rural water systems that receive less attention from the federal government.

Texas produced a free video that soon may be available to rural water systems across the country and plans to launch a "Water Watchers" program along the lines of the federal Citizen Corps volunteer initiatives.

"I don't think there's a lot of innovation that's needed. I think it's more [about] taking the issue seriously and being very proactive with it," said Washington drinking water director Gregg Grunenfelder.

Even in public health, which has received the largest infusion of federal anti-terror aid, states are only beginning to use the new money.

Maryland's work to staff each hospital with smallpox-ready infectious disease care teams and its regional cooperation with Virginia and the District of Columbia are trendsetting. So are Washington state's training exercises and the roster of communications personnel it has assembled to handle media overload in the event of a bioterror attack.

The broader legacy of last year's attacks for Maryland Health Secretary Dr. Georges Benjamin is the new concept of emergency public health.

"We used to handle disease outbreaks in a much more slow and deliberate manner. Now, our response is much quicker ... There's an urgency there now that wasn't there before," he said.