By now you’ve probably heard about the 15-year-old boy who stowed away in the wheel well of a jet aircraft bound for Honolulu from San Jose and the questions it has raised about security at US airports. I believe there are two very important lessons we can learn from this.
One of the myths that has been sold to the American public is the belief that they can be protected from everything. We’ve raised expectations to such a level that when things go wrong, as they inevitably do, the public feels betrayed. However, any security expert will tell you that there is no such thing as a foolproof system. That’s why we work in layers. The purpose of any security system is first to deter penetration of the facility. The second is to detect the attempted penetration and, finally, to delay the attacker long enough for a response to be mounted. However, inherent in any system is the risk that an extremely motivated attacker will be able to penetrate the system, something that we keep from the public.
So the fact that a 15-year-old boy could breach an airport perimeter by hopping a fence in the dark would not have been an issue if the system had been able to detect and delay him until security personnel arrived. This failure leads to the second point that I would like to make that of focusing on the expected rather than the unexpected.
The attacks of September 11 occurred onboard aircraft so the focus of all our security planning has largely been on passengers. We have considered the threat of terrorists on board an aircraft and the placement of bombs in luggage. However, we initially neglected the screening of the many vendors and workers that had access to restricted areas not open to passengers and there’s been little attention to the larger perimeter, partially because of the extreme cost that would be involved.
Yet an attack through an airport perimeter is not something that cannot be foreseen. On the morning of September 11 I was at a conference on infrastructure protection and we were discussing the tactics used by the special air service in World War II in their raids on German and Italian airfields. These attacks were made by breaching the perimeter and destroying parked aircraft with explosives and heavy weapons fire. Our assumption that airport attacks will always be against passengers and take place in the air is not particularly valid. Destroying multiple aircraft on the ground would have a significant cost both in damages and in future preventive security measures as well as profound psychological impact on air travelers.
This was not a failure of security. It was rather a failure to consider alternative means of attack, to think beyond past experience. To allow ourselves to focus solely on methods that have been used in the past is to leave ourselves vulnerable to the unexpected. And that is something we cannot afford to do.
Last week I wrote about concerns raised a San Francisco Chronicle investigation regarding the City's ability to fight major fires following an earthquake. Shortly after the investigative article was published, Naomi Kelly, the City Administrator for San Francisco, submitted a letter to the editor of the Chronicle responding to the concerns raised by the investigation.
Mrs. Kelly made it clear that improving and upgrading the firefighting infrastructure in San Francisco was a very clear priority for the city and that, far from ignoring the problem, City officials are actively engaged in solving the problem. Mrs. Kelly pointed out that the City maintains an earthquake safety and emergency response program to fund repairs and improvements to the City's response capabilities, including the emergency firefighting water supply system and other earthquake safety related infrastructure.As chair of the Capital Planning Committee, Mrs. Kelly helps to oversee this work.
in 2010, voters overwhelming passed a $20 million bond to provide funding for improvements to the emergency firefighting water supply system, public safety buildings, and to the neighborhood fire stations.
Mrs. Kelly further noted that voters in San Francisco will get a chance in June to vote on the second phase of these improvements. The City has proposed a $400 million earthquake safety and emergency response bond for inclusion on the June 2, 2014 ballot.
While are still much work to do to improve San Francisco's response infrastructure, it is heartening to know what San Francisco officials are well aware of the problem and are in fact doing something about.