Jernej Furman from Slovenia, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Needed: More Imagination for Countering Domestic Risks

Two decades ago, the 9/11 Commission Report stated that the most critical failure in preventing and preparing for the attacks was one of imagination. This practice seems to be a recurring theme in many major disasters up to the present day. Imagination is necessary for addressing challenges and incidents that threaten public safety. However, as Lord of the Flies author William Golding illustrates, people in crisis often lack imagination in considering potential threats, risks, and outcomes that they have not previously experienced.

Cultivating Imagination

Influential leaders should embrace a culture that values change, progress, and imagination. Homeland security and emergency management leaders who think bigger, broader, and bolder can develop new and unconventional strategies that address the vulnerabilities and threats of today and tomorrow. Public safety leaders who prioritize how they process and plan for all types of threats can fast-track their imaginative and creative planning and long-range vision for direct, indirect, and catastrophic threat scenarios. This step facilitates the mitigation of and response to disasters. Furthermore, industry leaders who become advocates can promote innovative strategies to address the new challenges and incidents – both natural and human-caused.

Communities across the United States are confronted with stronger and more destructive national disasters, escalating domestic and international conflicts, and complex cyberthreats. Senior leaders in the public and private sectors face a paradox that domestic preparedness expectations will continue to outpace investment. Therefore, it is important that leaders prioritize technological planning to integrate the most effective resources to combat these disasters.  Furthermore, such prioritization helps leaders accelerate their interdisciplinary planning and long-term vision for catastrophic threat scenarios in imaginative and creative ways.

Finding Innovative Opportunities

On September 14, 2023, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas stated in a U.S. Department of Homeland Security press release, “Artificial intelligence is a powerful tool we must harness effectively and responsibly.” He further remarked:

Our Department must continue to keep pace with this rapidly evolving technology, and do so in a way that is transparent and respectful of the privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties of everyone we serve.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the ability to address the challenges of instantaneous sources of unvetted intelligence of the crisis and the streaming of endless data from sources that public safety and disaster management need to review, confirm, distribute, and act. This drain on time and resources can be significantly improved through the use of AI’s capability of streamlining or scrubbing data and formulating effective responses based on the information processed.

Implementing AI and other innovative technologies that assess data quickly and accurately will improve response and mitigation tactics for any public safety agency.  As with any revolutionary transformation, anticipated challenges can hinder the widespread adoption of public safety technology. Improper use poses additional risks. However, the benefits seem to outweigh the perceived drawbacks. The potential uses of AI for public safety technology solutions seems endless – from virtual and augmented reality for training simulations to drones with thermal imaging capabilities for fire response.

William Bratton, executive chairman of risk advisory at a global advisory firm, summarized his thoughts in a January 15, 2020, article in American City and County:

Technology is advancing so quickly that things we could only dream about a few years ago are a reality today, and with lives on the line, it is critical that public safety officials are equipped with the skills and the know-how to use them.

Public safety has a foundation built on age-old traditions that can make them resistant to change or adopting new ideas. Leaders are responsible for instituting a culture that embraces change and sees the value in modernizing its processes to enhance public safety operations, create better outcomes, and make their communities safer places to live and work. However, leaders may resist trying new products and technologies for fear of low efficacy, reliability, and data security. In turn, this resistance can create a stagnant culture that dismisses new technology and cultivates comfort over creation.

Embracing New Ideas and New Technologies

Institutional resistance to new ideas can create a stale culture, preventing the opportunity to learn, evaluate, and test new technology like AI. Therefore, this may hinder public safety leaders, their resources, and their capabilities to respond to and mitigate disasters successfully and effectively. Adhering to tradition rather than striving for change is not a good reason to avoid technology. In today’s rapidly evolving world, governments that adapt and embrace change can better serve their missions, protect citizens, and institute policies relevant to modern culture and solutions.

Agency leaders are crucial in instituting a culture that embraces change and values innovation and modernization. In such a culture, agencies can enhance public safety operations, create better outcomes, and make their communities safer places to live and work. Successful public safety agencies look toward the next potential natural disaster or public safety incident and consider the tools that could enhance their daily work. Even if existing equipment and devices have proven indispensable, technology continues to open new opportunities.

As the acceptance of AI rises worldwide, government bodies are learning how to capture its potential ethically and responsibly. AI is a powerful tool that can improve government processes and drive positive transformation. Careful consideration of critical factors such as security and privacy can ensure data access is limited to those possessing proper clearances and credentials. After addressing these concerns, public safety agencies can use AI and machine learning to analyze data, identify patterns, and predict future events. These actions could help them make better decisions and respond more effectively to emergencies.

Looking Ahead

Technology is a part of daily life. It has transformed industries and redefined the world in ways that were unimaginable, even a few years ago. However, the failure of imagination is not new. It is part of the human condition. Many large-scale disasters, such as Pearl Harbor, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Maui wildfire, demonstrate a tendency to assign blame, miss some of the lessons learned, and fail to imagine that the disaster could happen again. There is a positive takeaway, though. By embracing AI and other new technologies, agencies and public officials could have abundant imagination and creativity at their disposal. These resources are ready to be tapped. The risk of not doing so could lead to a repeat of past mistakes and open the door to much more significant risks.

Jeanne Benincasa Thorpe

Jeanne Benincasa Thorpe is director of National Security and Resiliency for the law firm Nixon Peabody LLP. She works with the firm’s attorneys to help clients anticipate potential challenges to ensure continuity in times of crisis.

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