Weather v.s. Law Enforcement

Art Botterell wrote an interesting email to Dave Farber’s venerable Interesting People mailing list giving a bit of his impression of how FEMA has evolved over the years. It’s very interesting from a number of perspectives. They apparently learned a lot from the experience around Hurricane Andrew, learnings that went missing in recent years.

One thing he mentions in passing I found particularly thought provoking. “And then came 9/11. FEMA was subsumed into a law-enforcement dominated Department of Homeland Security” That’s a fascinating dialectic; between the problem of how respond to an emergency v.s. the job of law enforcement. In law enforcement there is a bad guy; so much of your energy is directed to, as Pat Robertson says, taking him out. In emergency management geology, weather, and the bad guys that get away are your problem. One is all about individual actors, while the other is all about probabilities, scenarios, and rapid response after the fact. I suspect that people have a natural tendency toward one or the other world view.

A skills of law enforcement seem pretty clearly bogus for tempering the risks of hurricanes and earthquakes. What really caught my attention though was that I suspect that they are far less effective for tempering the risks of terrorism than one might think at first blush.

Take for example the risk of terrorist acts against critical distributed systems; like pipelines, highways, power grids. The pool of bad actors is everybody on the planet with a grudge and the target has a immense perimeter. The chance of the vile deed is a statistical modeling problem; like weather forecasting. There are only a few ways to temper the risk. Three examples: find ways to reduce the energy of hate being pumped into the system. Find ways to configure the systems so they are less fragile; for example by finding choke points in these networks and distributing them. And finally being ready react quickly to limit the damage when it happens. I’m sure that law enforcement experts use these techniques; but they aren’t at the core of their craft.

I’m not a great fan of one dialectic to rule them all; but this is certainly an interesting one to throw in the pot. I think of the terrorism problem as more like the weather while I think a lot of people I disagree with tend to think it’s a law enforcement problem.

One risk of getting all excited about a single dialectic is that you tend to project it casually onto lots of other problems. But you it’s clear that what you see in New Orleans is very different if you see it as the breakdown of public order or the a vast messy coordination problem gone horribly wrong. What you do over the coming months is very different depending on your mind set. Law enforcement or emergency management?

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