Saturday, December 13, 2008

DC's Next Big Emergency-Response Challenge: Aliens

So I'm detouring again from the original thrust of this blog (politics, the occasional dabble into homeland security) and pontificating on something that came to mind last night. I actually plunked down $10 last night to see The Day The Earth Stood Still, which included one of the most hilariously unintentional scenes of racism I've ever had the fortune to watch. (Keanu Reeves, as alien-in-human-form, speaks stilted and uneven Chinese with other-alien-in-human-form James Hong, which sounds like Keanu imitating someone else's offensive parroting of Chinese speech.)

But TDTESS's lengthy scenes involving the military, secretive federal agencies, and local law enforcement responses to an alien landing seemed wildly inaccurate. Then I realized- how could someone define an accurate response to something so goofily improbable as an alien landing? So I have decided to try. Because that's what we need in times like this. Realistic assessments of the alien threat.

Before we get started, let's postulate a couple of things:
1) There are, in fact, no secret governmental or military agencies charged with handling extraterrestrial contacts, incidents or invasions.
2) There are, in fact, no plans, policies or procedures at the state, federal, local, municipal or military levels of government which specify how to respond to an alien landing.
3) The public arrival of an alien spacecraft would, for the sake of this discussion, not commence with immediate and overt hostilities on the part of either the aliens or humans.
4) The aliens would land in a location proximate to political leaders, military power, and population centers. For the sake of this discussion, it will be the site of the original TDTESS landing, the National Mall in Washington, DC.

The Arrival

All right. So how does this begin? Well, initially the spacecraft would be tracked by one of the multiple American or international institutions that participates in the "Spaceguard" program, sharing information and data on potentially dangerous asteroids approaching the earth. Once those folks communicated that information to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, we'd probably try to come up with some way to destroy it under the assumption that it was a piece of space junk. But, again for the sake of argument, let's say it began to slow down, change course, and exhibit obvious signs of intelligent guidance. I would suspect that, despite Hollywood's assumption, the instinctive response would not be for us to attempt to nuke it before it landed.

Of course, once it entered our atmosphere and began heading for the Baltimore-Washington area, our extraterrestrial visitor(s) would enter the Washington, DC Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ.) This is where things would begin to get tricky. It's doubtful that they filed a flight plan with the FAA, so this ADIZ incursion would trigger something called an ASA Mission- Air Sovereignty Alert. Air National Guard fighter jets (whose mission, since 9/11, has been air defense for major cities) would intercept the visitors as they arrived.

Regardless of what conveyance the aliens chose for this trip, our ANG pilots would probably be quick to realize that this was not the usual ADIZ violation (such as the May 2005 incident which forced the evacuation of the U.S. Capitol.) There have been over 3,000 of these incidents since 2001, but the rules of engagement for interstellar warfare are obviously a bit blurrier than those for forcing down a Cessna pilot who's gone wildly off-course. My suspicion is that unless the UFO made threatening moves or deployed some kind of weapon, they would escort and monitor the ship but stop short of attacking it.

The Response

So now the spacecraft lands on the National Mall, which is by far the best impromptu landing area in the National Capital Region. Concerned and confused citizens(who would inevitably swamp the DC 911 center with calls) would probably refer to it as an aircraft down. This would trigger an automatic specialty rescue assignment to the DC Fire & EMS Department, dispatching hazmat, heavy rescue , and mass casualty units to the scene, as well as a number of regular fire apparatus and ambulances.

But once it became obvious that nobody had been hurt, and that it was in fact a landing rather than an actual crash, DC Fire & EMS would have to hand over command to the primary law enforcement agency for the National Mall, the U.S. Park Police. They have fairly significant resources (including three medevac-capable helicopters, dubbed Eagles 1, 2 and 3, as well as a SWAT team and motor unit) so they would probably take over command. They'd have support from other agencies like the Secret Service Uniformed Division (who guard the White House) and DC's Metropolitan Police. In addition, since this would happen directly in front of the U.S. Capitol building, the Capitol Police would almost certainly respond.

Notably absent would be the military, with the exception of our Air Guard fighters. It's a staple, in the aliens-arrive genre, that heavily armed Guardsmen or paratroopers or Green Berets are awaiting the visitors on the ground, cocked, locked and ready to rock. But mobilizing the National Guard takes time, and it's a process that has to be worked out between state and federal governments. Unless they've been activated by the Department of Defense, the Guard is a state asset. Active-duty military troops, even in the Military District of Washington, might not be there immediately. The Marine Barracks near Capitol Hill would probably be the closest, but it's anybody's guess how long it would take to notify them and for them to subsequently suit up and respond in their full "battle rattle."

But there is one military unit which would, almost certainly, respond quickly and at their full capacity- the District of Columbia National Guard's 33rd Civil Support Team. CST teams are specially trained military hazmat squads, based in every state and tasked with the specific mission of assisting civilian government during a Weapons of Mass Destruction attack. They're on call 24/7, airmobile, and come with advanced radiation and hazardous materials assessment gear. Many have mobile command units as well. Any on-scene commander, concerned for personnel and public safety at the scene of an alien landing, would be well advised to call for a CST. Let's assume that this one did.

Another federal unit from the Department of Homeland Security would be quick to respond. The U.S. Coast Guard's Station Washington would probably dispatch air support to the Mall, adding to an already crowded sky but providing additional scene security. Their units would already be patrolling the Potomac River and helping to lock down the area. No sense in drunken boaters adding to the confusion.

And it wouldn't just be cops, firemen, Coasties and soldiers. Let's not forget that the arrival of alien visitors would create even more problems for DC's notorious traffic. The District D.O.T. and the National Park Service would have to divert traffic away from the National Mall, creating major detours around the center of the federal city. And the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, better known as Metro, would be forced to shut down its Smithsonian station to prevent commuters from inadvertently wandering into an interstellar incident.

The Mission

So with DC Fire, the 33rd CST, USCG, Park Police, Capitol Police, Secret Service, DDOT and MPD on scene, as well as onlookers and the inevitable media presence, the question would quickly become "who's in charge?" Federal, state and local responders are required to use the National Incident Management System, or NIMS, which emphasizes a concept called Unified Command. Instead of arguing over which agency is running the show at a big disaster, NIMS encourages the creation of Unified Command, where the major responders establish joint command and set incident objectives as a team. This is rarely as easy as it sounds, but at least they'd have DC Fire's mobile command unit as a safe location for the agency leaders to run the show.

The first priority would be establishing a perimeter around the scene. It wouldn't be easy, but it's been done before (and, during the upcoming Obama inauguration, they'll have to do it again.) The outer perimeter could be established fairly quickly, since there would be no shortage of police units to throw up checkpoints. The next step would be to establish communications. The federal government has authorized billions of grant dollars to ensure that cops, firefighters and other responders can talk on each other's radio systems, but it's not a done deal yet, and there are still problems.

Of course, once they'd established command, secured the scene, and set up communications, local, state and federal coordination centers would have to activate. Emergency Operations Centers, as they're called, serve as a place where different agency representatives can go to share resources and information as well as plan a wider response. While it would be nice to have Mayor Adrian Fenty and DC Homeland Security & Emergency Management Agency Director Darrell Darnell monitor the situation from the DC EOC, though, they'd probably show up to the scene.

So now we have elected leaders arriving at the scene. Fenty might be the first, and (since our UFO's inevitable Air Sovereignty Alert would certainly lead to the evacuation of the Capitol) members of the House and Senate (who hadn't already been evacuated to Mount Weather) would almost certainly wander on over. And good luck denying them access. Then the executive branch would show up- the quickest to arrive would probably be FBI special agents, the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security, and their entourages. My opinion is that the most important federal Secretary on scene would be the one charged with international diplomacy, and whose Foggy Bottom offices were a stone's throw a way- the Secretary of State. (Who would bring, as this blog has mentioned in the past, Diplomatic Security special agents.)

It would be very dependent on a President's personality, regarding whether or not he/she would choose to meet the aliens. Our current administration has shown a propensity to head for the hills (specifically, of Bluemont, Virginia and Waynesboro, PA) at the earliest hint of trouble. Not that I fault them- continuity of government is extremely important in matters of national security. I somehow think that our President-elect (while quickly sending Joe Biden to Site R) would choose to stay in the White House, most likely monitoring it from the Presidential Emergency Operations Center. He'd have the option of meeting E.T. if he wanted to, and of staying in a place of relative shelter not too far from the scene.

While all of this was going on, the 33rd CST (along with DC Fire) would probably suit up and enter the inner perimeter of the landing site. Most movies imply a lot of steam, smoke and dramatic concealment of the craft and its occupants, but I would imagine that any transgalactic civilization would be able to land their craft without making it look like a dry-ice trick on Halloween. At this point, our hazmat teams would start running the risk of encountering the alien flight crew. But if the aliens were still doing their landing checks inside the ship, the CST would probably detect slightly-elevated radiation levels from interstellar travel.

The Media

DC would be a luckier landing site for the responders than many other places. If they touched down in New York or Los Angeles, emergency response units would be plagued by buzzing and hovering news helicopters. They'd have to establish a temporary flight restriction, which can take time, but DC-area TV stations don't even use helicopters (they'd never get clearance to fly in the first place.) But the Mall has long, open lines of sight, and it wouldn't be long before the print and broadcast media would be howling for some kind of information about what had just landed on the Mall.

This is another situation in which the Unified Command would be smart to break out their NIMS training and set up a Joint Information Center somewhere outside of the hot zone. By sending spokespersons from different agencies to staff the center, they could coordinate their messages before opening their mouths. For example- the Washington Post asks, is it an alien ship? The Coasties could say no, the military could say yes, and DC Fire could say maybe. With a JIC, responders can can get their stories straight without contradicting each other a la Hurricane Katrina.

Regular briefings, reasonable access to the scene and honest information would go a long way towards making news media coverage of the response run smoothly. As smoothly as possible. Let's not forget, we're dealing with aliens landing on the freaking Mall here.

Making Contact

So now that the scene has been secured, the Civil Support Team has assessed the situation, the media is being managed, and the President is monitoring the situation, who would be sent to make the first contact? Who would be our emissary to the interstellar visitors? What kind of a message would we send? For God's sake, we're talking about aliens landing on the Mall. I have no freakin' idea.

But it does make planning for the January 20th inauguration seem a lot easier, doesn't it?

Please feel free to leave comments and let me know (if you've got experience in public safety, emergency management or the military) if I've missed anything, or if you think it would be managed differently.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Four Years

It's four years (give or take a couple of hours) since I started this blog out of frustration at the way the world looked after Bush's re-election in 2004. I've posted inconsistently at best, and not always on the topic of politics (see: iPhone, Customs & Border Protection officers, etc.) But I've been focused, on the whole, on looking ahead at how this country gets past the fact that it elected (and re-elected) George W. Bush to be President of the United States.

And from the way things look tomorrow (note that I say this crossing my fingers whilst knocking on wood) our country has turned in the direction that we could only dream about four years ago. To paraphrase Aaron Sorkin's commentary in the New York Times, we've got a black guy with a funny name running a strong campaign against a genuine war hero and a pretty evangelical white woman. Doesn't that tell us something about how far we've come?

(By no means am I taking this for granted, since the ghosts of the Bush mistakes are everywhere. No, seriously- I saw Donald Rumsfeld walking down Connecticut Avenue today and it really freaked me out.)

But we can't forget how we got here. The last eight years have been, without question, some of the hardest this country has ever seen. We've had our foreign policy mismanaged to epic proportions, witnessed the rise of a news organization that promotes the alternate conservative interpretation of reality over, um, the TRUTH, and seen federal funding for lifesaving science and technology efforts slashed for idiotic ideological reasons. Oh, don't forget that we've had our economy flushed into the toilet through the worst of both worlds; massive growth in government programs combined with tax cuts and deficit spending.

That's what drives me insane about this administration. (One of the things.) At least Democrats have the courage of their convictions; at the end of the day, they may tax and spend, but at least they recognize that you have to HAVE money to spend it. Is cutting taxes to artificially low levels and borrowing against the dollar (supported by China and Saudi Arabia, who really have our best interests at heart) somehow more honorable? Be honest about where the money comes from, at a minimum.

Here's the thing. Bush polarized this country to an unparalleled degree, and Democrats could have selected a dyed-in-the-wool standard-bearer to ride the usual anti-administration wave that crests after a two-term President leaves office. (That would be Hillary, those of you who still have the guts to call yourselves PUMAs.) But Democrats, as well as unprecedented new voters and independents, selected Barack Obama, a visionary with an inclusive and inspiring plan to move the country past the wounds of the Bush years.

And that guy has been running campaign circles around John McCain. So, no pun intended regarding Obama's catch word, I have hope. Not just for how tomorrow will go (at least I know I'll have a few drinks onboard; I'll be in a bar within view of the U.S. Capitol watching the returns) but for how liberals have managed to appeal to the great undecided middle, and how unlike 2004, people are beginning to vote their hopes and not their fears.

Watch the attack ads aimed at Obama in the last few hours, if you're in range of (or living in) a swing state. The Republican Party wants the world to be afraid of Obama, either because he's proven himself to be too liberal or because he hasn't proven himself enough. (They don't seem to mind the inherent contradiction.) The point is not that their guy is a good candidate; it's that our guy is somehow, amorphously, intangibly bad.

The point is, Obama is not out for the kind of revenge upon the Republican party or the federal government that even a guy like me would want. And I'm going to vote for him because of his judgment- because he won't do what I would do, set out to systematically reverse everything Bush did. He's looking forward, and that's the right attitude.

If you'll excuse me, the SNL Presidential Bash is on, and I'm planning on laughing tonight, voting tomorrow, and smiling on Wednesday.

Also, if McCain wins, I will resurface in a week or two with a red-state-sized hangover.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

CIA Research Budget Expands; Now Checking Google AND Amazon

America's top spies have divined the following shocking revelations after taking advantage of the very latest in tea-leaf and tarot card technology. Among their research-intensive findings, the most brilliant minds of our vaunted intelligence community have determined:

-The world will get warmer.
-The population will grow and age.
-New forms of energy will be important.
-American power and prestige will shrink.

Let's just set aside the fact that these things have already happened. I mean seriously, guys, you're not even trying any more. Are we honestly just paying American intelligence agencies to sit around and read the next Tom Friedman book?

The CIA's next groundbreaking work products: "Non-English Speakers Remain Difficult to Understand," "Japanese Cars Represent Ongoing Threat to GM," and the page-turner I can't wait for, "Mideast Political Future Appears Sandy."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Charles Rangel, You Deserve It

I can't say that, as a liberal, I feel any sympathy for Charles Rangel whatsoever. Between using taxpayer dollars to build himself a monument at City College of New York, using rent-controlled apartments as offices, and apparently evading his taxes here and there, he'd be your average slimy politician.

But the man went one step worse than that. He, alongside Louis Farrakhan, helped the men who murdered New York City Patrolmen Phillip Cardillo to evade justice. As I mentioned in a previous post, in April of 1972, Cardillo and his partner were called to a mosque in Harlem for a report of an officer down. It was a fake call that drew them into an ambush. Cardillo was shot and died a week later in the hospital, but when a crowd of local citizens saw the commotion, they were angry only that the police had entered a mosque.

Rangel, aided by Louis Farrakhan, denied the police officers the ability to investigate the crime scene using the threat of a riot. They assured the cops that the perpetrators would turn themselves in at the local precinct, and because of Rangel's influence, the New York City police had no choice but to accept this travesty and leave the scene. In addition, Rangel helped twist the deputy police commissioner's arm into apologizing for the incident in the first place. Neither the mayor nor the police commissioner attended Officer Cardillo's funeral, but Cardillo's widow and his three children certainly did.

Representative Charles Rangel helped a cop killer to go free, and we're surprised that the guy might cheat on his taxes? He's a disgrace to the Democratic Party. The sooner someone has the courage to drag this pond scum into the light of day, the better.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

YouTube Fights Back

Just out of curiosity, why did this little blow to international terrorism take so damn long? I'm all for keeping this little series of tubes open and free from unreasonable restriction, but the idea that YouTube has been removing videos for copyright violations but not violent, hateful and potentially murderous messages...along with education viewers on how to act on those messages? Why did it take Joe freaking Lieberman to get people's attention?

It's very similar to child pornography; everybody recognizes, internationally, that that material both stems from unacceptable, repugnant activities, and that it also helps perpetuate them. In one case it's child molestation, and in another, it's hate speech and try-this-at-home walkthroughs on bomb-building. The scope of damage is obviously different, but they both clearly represent a public menace.

That's what allows me to advocate a restriction on free speech, especially over the Internet, which is something I'm not ordinarily prone to doing.

There's a good argument to be made that keeping such videos out in the open permits intelligence agencies to track who's viewing them. But that tends to get into privacy issues, and is within spitting distance of the PATRIOT Act. Furthermore, if you take that initial easy access to the material away, that starts to narrow down the number of people who are willing to put in the effort to find the stuff. The truly dedicated ones were going to find it anyway, and if they didn't find the extremist material, they were going to make their own. But this helps with the low-hanging fruit...the bored or disaffected who might have come across the stuff casually.

And the "whack-a-mole" point is valid. If you shut them down off YouTube, they'll go somewhere else. But that goes back to the child-porn example. If it becomes progressively more difficult to find using mainstream websites, all but the most dedicated searchers will give up and do something (hopefully) more lawful with their time. It's the same theory that leads China to use basic obstructive techniques on their "Great Firewall." Any decent hacker can get around the Chinese net controls, but they're not doing it for hackers. They're doing it to help corral the general population.

Not that I'm advocating corralling anybody. But big enterprises like YouTube have an obligation to parse the most offensive and dangerous material out there, and I remain surprised that they didn't have any restrictions on it until now. You couldn't stand on a streetcorner and pass out how-to flyers on bomb-building. Someone would call the police and you would be out of luck.

This will obviously not stop people who want to hear violent hate speeches, see attacks on American troops, or learn how to build a bomb. But it does force them to take additional steps and expend additional effort. This additional time and effort is the cornerstone of the three D's- Deter, Delay, Disrupt. Making it tougher- even if only a little- to find the videos that they want will help deter the half-hearted, delay the committed, and provide a little more time to help disrupt their activities.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Pick Your Reality

Reality #1: Since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security and its dedicated personnel, contractors and partners have made significant advances in securing our homeland. They have been responsive to Congressional inquiry, accepting of criticism, willing to reform after debacles like Katrina, and fastidious in their stewardship of American tax dollars. For confirmation of this version of reality, see here.

Reality #2: The Department of Homeland Security is a pigheaded, bloated bureaucracy that is barely competent enough to tread the party line under the toxic leadership of Still-President George W. Bush. They ignore Congressional requirements, cozy up to private contractors, engage in vicious turf battles and generally leave America less safe. For confirmation of THIS version of reality, see here.

As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Why My iPhone Rules

This is my first post in a while and it's wildly off-topic. Why, in a time of more exciting political developments- nay, the most exciting political developments in four years- would I choose to write about my consumer electronics purchases? One purchase, specifically? Because, to be perfectly honest, that purchase is worth the time.

The iPhone (and its latest incarnation, the 3G) already has enough of an aura or a stigma, depending on your point of view. People who have them tend to be characterized as early-adopter, techno-hipster types who see Steve Jobs' and Sergei Brin's creations as divine masterpieces on par with the Himalayas or the platypus. The iPhone's detractors tend to fall into the Blackberry-using, suit-and-tie drone category, or the disenchanted lot who had some lousy experience with an iPhone and threw up their hands. This crowd tends to have three major gripes- the reception/3G network service sucks, it's disgustingly expensive on a monthly basis, and the battery life is infinitesimal.

I can safely say that both sides are right.

The iPhone 3G is an amazing toy, with blatantly obvious flaws, but those flaws- in a weird, perverse way- actually make it even more worthwhile. I'll explain, but first I have to remind you of the iPhone's primary capabilities. (I'm not going to mention everything it does, because that would be goofy. But it's worth pointing out the things that it does do, that one actually uses.)

1.) Phone. Duh. 'Nuff said.
2.) iPod. Also duh. Video capabilities, 8GB or 16GB of storage depending on model, and its trademark white earbuds double as a headset for the phone. Lets you buy music on the go.
3.) Camera. Not the world's greatest camera, but when I forget my real camera and HAVE to snap a picture, it can do the job 95% of the time.
4.) Mobile email platform. It syncs up well with GMail, which is all I care about, as well as a number of other clients. Not as straightforward of an interface as a Blackberry, but it still works just fine.
5.) Internet browser. Between the Safari application and all of the other web-based programs you can get specifically for the iPhone (Twitter, Wikipedia, Google Maps, and Facebook, to name a tiny few) it's got good mobile Internet for most of the stuff you waste time on at the office.
6.) GPS/locator service. You need directions somewhere, this thing's got you covered.

Obviously, it does more than what I mentioned there, but the point is, that's what you use it for on a regular basis.

Keeping that in mind, let's address the battery problem. It is not unreasonable to imagine a modern person carrying different devices for just about all of those different functions. A Blackberry for their work e-mail, an iPod for music, a PSP for video, a TomTom for GPS, a personal cell phone, and a laptop computer. Six devices, about 25 pounds worth of electronics, and God knows how many jigawatts of power. (Yes, I'm deliberately using a Marty McFly unit of electrical measurement.) Now you've got one that weighs less than a pound that can do a B+ job at all of those functions. Wouldn't you rather be recharging its battery on a daily basis than toting around a big ol' collection of the other devices I mentioned?

Moving to the next problem, the crotchety network access (including 3G, which saps the Chihuahua-esque battery even further). First, turn off the 3G unless you really, really need it. The difference in speed is not as significant as you'd think. And to be honest, I think the patchy network and cell coverage is a blessing in disguise- in fact, almost an Apple safety feature. If you had good, fast coverage on this thing's network 24-7, you would be so utterly glued to its screen that you wouldn't pay attention to oncoming traffic, walls, or overweight tourists. Cursing the AT&T network forces you to look away from the screen occasionally.

And on the last note, there is no way to excuse the fact that the iPhone is expensive on a monthly basis. It just is. But once you get one, you'll realize that its capabilities can fundamentally change how you interact with the world around you; it really does make you into a more wired person. My best example: I was recently in a new city, looking for a particular monument that a friend had told me to check out. Without ever needing to call someone or use a traditional computer, I:

-Got directions from my current location to the monument
-Checked up on its history on Wikipedia
-Took a picture of myself in front of it
-Mailed it to my friend
-Wandered through the rest of the park listening to music
-Checked out restaurant reviews for places in the area to get dinner.

That's a level of plugged-in I had never imagined. And this guy, who recently gave up his crappy, 2005-era flip phone, thinks it's worth it.