Spending Money on the Wrong Security Threats

This story is a year and a half old, but the lessons are still good:

Kim Hyten, emergency management director in Putnam County, said he didn’t realize homeland security grants can now be used to prepare for tornados. As a result, Putnam County is using its grant money to prepare for something else.

“Weapons of mass destruction,” Hyten said.

That’s right—weapons of mass destruction. This year, Putnam County spent most of its $58,000 homeland security grant to buy dozens of gas masks, boxes full of chemical suits, a plutonium-detecting gamma and neutron ray radiological monitor and, for good measure, this rural county about fifty miles west of Indianapolis also ordered plenty of weapons of mass destruction test strips.

But asked whether weapons of mass destruction are a concern, Hyten replied: “The weapons of mass destruction—I don’t believe this county has ever, when we did our terrorism protection plan, ever looked at that we’d be a targeted site.”

Posted on February 19, 2008 at 7:18 AM28 Comments


jdege February 19, 2008 7:51 AM

When the town is attacked by giant radioactive spiders, they’re going to be very glad they’ve got all that gear…

lâche anonyme February 19, 2008 9:08 AM

So I was working for a large IT company and was invited to a customer call. The customer had some DHS money to spend – a few million. He wanted to have a highly reliable (“fault tolerant”) computer system that would collect and analyze all the threat information for his county. “I want one like LA has, only bigger.” Did he have multiple millions of citizens to cover? Well, uh, no. Did he have time-critical processing requirements? Well, uh, no, the FBI and the state would handle anything that was THAT urgent. He just wanted to buy a big fancy computer system for the emergency system in his county with his Federal bucks.

So, by golly, we offered him the system of his dreams – when a laptop could have handled the computation and storage requirements.

someone else February 19, 2008 9:29 AM

Honestly, this is exactly what I would do in this situation, and I’d make a huge media blitz out of it. Just to show how brain-dead the whole security theater is.

Carlo Graziani February 19, 2008 9:30 AM

DHS grants are turning into the Mother Of All Perverse Incentive Systems. When they mess up small-town emergency preparedness this way, the effect is kind of comical. But they also corrupt law-enforcement priorities in major cities — NYC and Boston are conspicuous and recently-discussed examples — in ways that are not very funny (except to people nostalgic for Soviet-era jokes).

Ken H February 19, 2008 9:36 AM

Test strips and sensors have shelf lives ranging from a couple of months to two years.

Fire Engineering article on sensors: http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/article_display.html?id=242132

Haz-mat suits are typically rated for 5-years of use before being downgraded to “training use only” status.

I know of many towns, mine included, that have hundreds of haz-mat suits and WMD detectors stored in the basements of fire and police stations. These things are taking the place of the green civil defense drums of the cold war era.

Spider February 19, 2008 10:15 AM

I would be in support if my old city bought this sort of equipment. Not because it would be a terrorist act, but your typical industrial accident. They have all sorts of chemical plants (don’t drink the water) and a nuclear plant 20 miles away. They normally wouldn’t have the money for this kind of equipment, so they could actually get the emergency response equip to prevent against “terrorism” that they actually need to prevent against “idiots with chemicals”.

Same Place where the police chief requested the renewal of the Patriot act, because it “helps us catch regular criminals”.

bob February 19, 2008 10:17 AM

Nobody going to get upset about the “Barrett Law” mentioned in the article? Each additional dollar I earn is already being taxed at over 60% (Do the math: add Federal income tax, state income tax, city income tax, school tax, property tax, social security tax[add it in twice if you are self-employed], medicare tax, gas tax [I have to drive to work or I dont have income to pay tax on] and sales tax) and now while pissing away the money they’ve already taken on silly shit; they pass a law that lets them take MORE of it just because they want it? Are they aware that 100% is as high as it can go; and since they dont provide food, shelter or clothing I actually need to retain some of my money for my own use?

The Government February 19, 2008 10:28 AM

“and since they dont provide food, shelter or clothing”

If you don’t stop spreading vicious lies about us, we will provide you with food, shelter and clothing (can have any color as long as it is orange), in addition to a free trip to Cuba.

ice weasel February 19, 2008 10:51 AM

Like most everything else with this administration, it’s about redistributing money to private enterprises (and hopefully ones connected to their friends), it has little or nothing to do with real threats or real security.

Petréa Mitchell February 19, 2008 11:10 AM

I wonder if they actually did use the next year’s money to fix the sirens? A quick search doesn’t turn up any information on that.

Qian Wang February 19, 2008 11:55 AM

You know, this completely explains why in zombie attack movies the hero can always find crates full of doomsday-type supplies in every barn. Who knew those hollywood guys did such thorough research.

tim February 19, 2008 12:35 PM

Whats sad about all this is in the very unlikely chance that an “attack” happened in Putnam County, they would either forget they had the equipment, the equipment would no longer be useful, or they would have no clue how to properly utilize it.

TS February 19, 2008 12:42 PM

But the HazMat suits will come in handy if the US spy satellite comes crashing down intact. Think of it, thousands of gallons… I mean hundreds of gallons… I mean the hundred or so gallons of hydrazine that, if it doesn’t burn up, could contaminate the area the size of a football field!

Rich Wilson February 19, 2008 2:30 PM

In the whole run up to the Iraq invasion, I kept wondering “What exactly is a ‘weapon of mass destruction’?” How big qualifies for ‘mass’? Is it any chemical or nuclear weapon? What about a machine gun? Or a hand grenade? It seems like one of those Orwellian new words that kinda sorta feels scary, but nobody knows exactly what it is, so it can be whatever you want it to be.

someone else February 19, 2008 3:59 PM

Like most everything else with EVERY administration, it’s about redistributing money to private enterprises (and hopefully ones connected to their friends), it has little or nothing to do with real threats or real security.

There, fixed it for you 🙂

Andrew February 19, 2008 10:10 PM

You will find on closer examination that certain suppliers offer kickbacks on big-ticket items. (“Buy this load of DHS crap you don’t need with money you can’t spend any other way, and we’ll throw in something you DO need on the side.”)

DV Henkel-Wallace February 20, 2008 12:30 AM

Since the story is already a year an a half old, it would have been a great one to hang onto and print in early April….or when some DHS funding bill is being debated….

Roger February 20, 2008 4:19 AM

@Rich Wilson:

“What exactly is a ‘weapon of mass destruction’?” … It seems like one of those Orwellian new words that kinda sorta feels scary, but nobody knows exactly what it is,

It is neither new, nor particularly vague. It was used as long ago as the 1940s and was in common use in specialist quarters (mainly, students and practitioners of international law) in the 1980s. Under international law there was no “official” definition (unless you include its usage in the MTCR in 1987, where it IS defined) but it was well understood to cover nuclear, biological and chemical weapons as defined under the respective international treaties prohibiting their proliferation or use. Sometimes — but usually not — radiological devices are included.

There have been much broader, vaguer usages in the media, which I think that one can dismiss as the typical sort of drivel uttered by all politicians and most journalists. More disappointingly, however, US Code Title 18.2332a (c) tacks “destructive device” onto the usual list. This is an extremely broad category under the US Code, and even includes some things that are far from certain of killing even one person, e.g. some (illegally oversized) firecrackers.

Roger February 20, 2008 5:03 AM

A comment on shelf life of tests strips, “sensors” and hazmat suits.

Most civilian detector strips (for industrial hazards) have a shelf life of either 1 or 2 years. It is rounded off presumably for liability reasons. Possibly some are only a few months, but they aren’t common.

Military M-8 detector paper (for military chemical weapons) has an indefinite shelf life if stored correctly. M-9 self-adhesive detector strips has a shelf life of 3 years.

For other “sensors”, it really depends on what type you mean; there are scores of them. Longevity ranges from disposable devices with a shelf life of a few months, through devices that last indefinitely but require skilled annual servicing, through to devices designed to sit on a shelf for 10 years and then work first time when started, with minimal operator training and no maintenance.

Ken H suggested that a suit has a 5 year working life, but the shelf life is much longer. In fact the limiting factor is not the suit material (which is often made of materials that can reasonably be expected to last literally for centuries), but the respirator filters. Most have a stated shelf life of 10 years, but with strong caveats about correct storage conditions.

bob February 20, 2008 8:17 AM

A “weapon of mass destruction” could be as simple as a single-shot rifle – if you are a buffalo…

What I would wish is that cities/states/etc would get out of the mentality that “oh, DHS is offering money if we use it to buy this crap we dont want/need, so lets sign up for some” and go to “since we dont need this, lets not get it even if it is free (to us)”. Because money does not come FROM the government. It comes from taxpayers. And it is finite

Mark February 25, 2008 3:33 PM

Tim- This is a big issue with all Federal grants for equipment, not just Homeland Security related. Federal grants for such things as PET scanners to hospitals or Computers to colleges are almost always for major infrastructure only, so the l;ocal or state government is expected to pay ALL training and maintenance costs afterwards. Plenty of local organizations take ‘free’ equipment without budgeting any of the necessary training and upkeep. Some company makes money, and the public gets the illusion that the related services will still be available when they are needed.

Rich Wilson – The Definition of WMD, (from when I was a Nuke/Bio/chem defense officer) is limited to those three weapons types. Chem is also limited to not include things such as Tear Gas, Smoke, or Defoliants. This still poses problems. U.S. Doctrine is that having no Bio weapons, we will use our only WMD against enemy WMD attacks. That means the US claims the international legal right to use Nukes against Chemical attackers. No one in official positions is willing to be entirely clear for the public record if a defoliant that also impacts people directly (like Agent Orange) counts as a Chem attack. No one wants to draw any lines between Bio (incapacitating flu strain with few fatalities – a very minor mass destroyer) and Bio (aerosolized Ebola Zaire – possibly the first weapon with a yield measuarable in Gigadeaths and not just Megadeaths). As an extension of M.A.D. era doctrines, this is deliberately left unclear to our enemies and to the American public.
By they way, I bet this post tripped at least half Echelon’s filters.

Hoosier March 3, 2008 8:30 AM

While putnam county would certainly benefit from the repairs to it’s Tornado alarms it is only about 40 miles west (winds in Indiana come primarily from the west) of the largest VX gas storage site in the United States if not the world. This is the stuff that will eat your skin off. While the chemical facility is considered safe from Tornado damage and the liquid nerve agent is considered too heavy to get picked up by winds there has never been any way to prove this. The neighboring counties of Parke and Vermillion actually have sirens for the possible VX spills right next to their Tornado sirens.
Hazmat suits aren’t a bad idea, but what’s the good in having them if you don’t know the VX is coming.

Tonto May 5, 2009 9:10 PM

FYI…all VX has been neutralized at Newport. In fact, the entire facility is be disassembled. You will have to go to Bluegrass, KY to find the closest VX.

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