Over the years I've posted a number of blogs on "security theater", the use of security measures that serve no purpose other than to make the public think an agency is actually doing something. The Transportation Security Administration has raised this to a fine art with its Byzantine passenger screening protocols.
Case in point is a recent article by New York Times reporter Matt Richtel regarding the apparent contradiction in screening electronic devices. TSA requires that laptops be removed from your bag for screening but does not require this special procedure for other devices such as computer tablets or smart phones. Richtel attempted to find the reasoning behind this requirement by talking with TSA and a variety of security experts. The conclusion: more security theater.
It's one more example of TSA being reactive and not proactive. There is certainly a possibility that explosives could be concealed in a laptop, particularly in the early models. However, this is also possible with some models of tablet computers. And this doesn't even consider the possibility of electronic jamming devices. As one of Richtel's experts points out: "If the government really wanted to cover the dangers posed by electronics...it would need to carefully inspect all manner of electronics, from phones to netbooks to tablets, to look for increasingly small and sophisticated weapons."
Like the ban on liquids (what, you can't get several of bad guys to combine their allowances?) and vicious weapons such as nail clippers, the requirement for separate screening for laptops really serves no purpose other than to make the public feel safer. There are much better ways of providing security than by deceiving the public.
April 18, 1906 - it's a date that holds special meaning for us here in San Francisco. This year is the 106th anniversary of the earthquake and fires that destroyed much of the city, killed thousands, and displaced over a quarter of a million people.
But our our modest commemorations aren't concerned with the disaster itself. Instead we pay homage each year to those who remained and rebuilt the city. Our city seal bears the Phoenix, the mythical bird that rises from the ashes more gloriously than before, in token of that achievement.
In this we are not unique in San Francisco. All great cities have similar stories: Chicago after the Great Fire in 1871, Lisbon after the earthquake, tsunami, and fire in 1799, London after the Great Fire in 1666 to name but a few. In each case, people came together to rebuild and to carry on. It speaks to the resilience of the human spirit.
I believe that the highest duty emergency managers owe to those we serve is to build resilient communities. I always find this a good day to reflect on that duty.
There's an interesting experiment being conducted by the National Weather Service. Five weather stations in Kansas and Missouri will be using plain terminology to warn people of impending hurricanes.
One of the interesting phenomena we see in emergency management is that people do not respond to warnings immediately but seek verification before acting. They tend to look out the window, consult friends, check in with social media - in short anything but take the public warning at face value. This is particularly true where authorities have to err on the side of caution and issue warnings for events that seldom occur.
To counter this, the weather stations will be couching their warnings in serious, straight-sounding language. Instead, "a tornado watch has been issued for the towns of..." residents will hear something along the lines of:
THIS IS AN EXTREMELY DANGEROUS TORNADO WITH COMPLETE DEVASTATION LIKELY. ... SEEK SHELTER NOW! ... MOBILE HOMES AND OUTBUILDINGS WILL OFFER NO SHELTER FROM THIS TORNADO — ABANDON THEM IMMEDIATELY."
I'm not sure how well this will work. It's incredibly difficult to shock people out of their complacency, especially if these warnings have the same limited likelihood of occurrence as previous ones. But trying to communicate actual risk to people is always a good thing and a much better approach than a warning that just says a tornado of unspecified magnitude might occur. I'll be very interested to see the results of this experiment.
"Pink slime" - sounds disgusting, doesn't it? And yet Americans have been eating it for some time. If you've been following the media buzz lately, you'll be aware that "pink slime" is a derogatory term coined by a USDA microbiologist in 2002 (that's right, 2002 - pink slime was approved for use in 2001) to refer to the filler made from beef scraps and connective tissue. The recovered product is heated, processed, and treated with ammonia gas to kill contaminating organisms before being ground, pressed into blocks and flash frozen. The product is considered safe for use by the USDA, although other countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom don't allow it.
The controversy seems to have begun with a series of news broadcasts by ABC last month that featured a "whistle-blower" and "shocking revelations". The public outcry was so great that almost immediately major grocery stores such as Safeway and Vons and fast food outlets such as Taco Bell and MacDonald's announced that they were discontinuing the use of the additive. The result was that in a matter of weeks the manufacturer of the filler, Beef Products, Inc. announced that it was suspending operations at three of its four plants but would continue to pay workers for 60 days. Yesterday, AFA, one of the largest beef processors in the US filed for bankruptcy.
So what's going on here? I'm not debating the merits of this particular additive but rather looking at this from a crisis management perspective. The use of "lean, finely textured beef" has been going on for more than ten years, with estimates that over 70% of the ground beef sold in US supermarkets contain the additive. The product is made from beef, admittedly of low quality, and, one could argue, makes more efficient use of the meat. It can only make up 15% of the product. Ammonia, which seems to make people cringe, is a naturally-occurring product and found in beef. As early as April of 2011, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver premiered his second season of Food Revolution with an expose on pink slime. So why now?
I think there are several reasons for the immediate and savage public outcry. First, there's what I call the "ick" factor - this just sounds plain disgusting to the average American. (One can but hope that they never do an expose on sausage making.) The term "pink slime" contributes to this sense of this somehow being something unsafe for human consumption. It's catchy and it resonates. Secondly, you have a major network breaking the story and keeping the focus on in it for several weeks. Third, there is the whiff of scandal - the USDA undersecretary who approved the use of the filler left to join the board at BPI and made over a million dollars during her tenure there. Finally, there was no labeling and this is probably the worst thing for the average American - we don't like to feel like we've been cheated.
One wonders, though, if we'd still be eating pink slime if the USDA had required "lean, finely textured beef" to be noted on product labeling.