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One year with Homeland Security not enough to measure success

Published (Volume 76, No. 25)

Officials at UTM say that it’s going to take more than one year to see if the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is a worthwhile endeavor.

DHS officially began under a congressional mandate one year ago, but the doors didn’t open as a separate department until March 1. Marking the one-year anniversary, Tom Ridge, Secretary of DHS, told the nation on that the department has made “measurable, visible progress” toward securing the United States.

When the department opened, it merged 22 separate intelligence and law enforcement agencies encompassing more than 180,000 people. To students at UTM such as Mike Baggett the only thing he sees the department doing is issuing the threat advisories, a process that he says has become very annoying.

“The threat levels get all kinds of media attention when they are raised. But, they never tell us what is going on. Are we just supposed to change our life when the threat is raised from yellow to orange? The color schematics are nifty, but I think they have little value in actually making Americans safer. I am tired of just being told to be more vigilant, especially when I don’t even know what I am looking for,” Baggett says.

Baggett is referring to the department’s advisory system for threat level. There are five threat conditions each identified by a description and corresponding color. From lowest to highest, the levels and colors are: Low-Green, Guarded-Blue, Elevated-Yellow, High-Orange and Severe-Red.

Baggett is not the only one who seems in the dark when it comes to reacting to a change in the threat levels.
David McAlpin, Director of Weakley County Management Emergency Agency (WCEMA), oversees the emergency management for all of Weakley County, including the university. But, even he doesn’t seem to know what to do when the terror alerts are raised.

“Hell if I know,” McAlpin says when asked what citizens of Weakley County and students at UTM are supposed to do when the threat level is raised. “They tell us all to be more careful, but never give us any details of what we are supposed to do. I can get more info from CNN than I can the Homeland Security Office,” McAlpin adds.

“The threat levels have turned into more of a joke than anything of substance,” McAlpin says.
Rick Hatler, Director of Public Safety at UTM, says that since the creation of Homeland Security, there has been an increase in information flow.

“We receive information on a daily basis from several local and federal agencies,” Hatler says. “If there is something that impacts us, then we respond accordingly.”
Hatler says that he thinks the program has had some success. “I think the increase flow of communications has averted some potential problems,” Hatler says. But, the real question seems to be if people are safer sine the department’s creation.

“I don’t feel any safer now than I did before,” Baggett says. “I certainly don’t feel any safer on a day when the color of the day is yellow as opposed to orange,” Baggett says.
McAlpin also questions whether we are any safer.

McAlpin explained the process that the county has used to evaluate the threat level and level of vulnerability of Weakley County and UTM. McAlpin says that on a scale of one to ten for vulnerability, UTM ranks a very solid ten. As for threat level and likelihood of being attacked, McAlpin says that we are probably a one.

“We’ve been told that if terrorists can’t affect 50 thousand people or more, then they are probably not going to attack that area,” McAlpin says. “Thus, UTM and Weakley County are given a one in this area.”

Officials at UTM and Weakley County would agree that if anything has made us safer, it has been more planning and flow of information. McAlpin says that the county has received grants from the department that will improve communications. There is also more money being allocated towards planning and training, especially of first responders in Weakley County.
“From a planning standpoint, it has made us more aware that we need to plan on things and train other people and make them aware of what we have to do,” McAlpin says.

This training and planning process has brought many officials from surrounding areas to the table. Emergency officials from UTM, Weakley county and surrounding counties have been developing emergency plans to handle a massive emergency, should it occur.

Sec. Ridge told the nation during a press conference that he has been pleased with the success the department has achieved in its first year, but adds that there is still a lot to be done. Students and officials at UTM couldn’t agree more that there is indeed a lot of improvements to be made.

Chancellor Nick Dunagan of UTM says that it is just too early to tell whether the department is a success. “I know that Hatler and others have been highly involved in the process, but I am not yet convinced that the department’s creation has been a success,” Dunagan says.

Dunagan says that if the intelligence agencies trusted each other and worked together well in the first place, that there would not need to be a department of homeland security. He also adds that the reason the department was created may continue to be the department’s biggest flaw.

“They did this because the departments don’t trust one another and don’t work well together. You can create an office to oversee the agencies, but you can not and will not be able to superimpose trust,” Dunagan says.

At least at UTM and Weakley County, the jury is still out on deciding if the Department of Homeland Security really has made us more secure.