Retooling Homeland Security Grants for IEDs: Enlist the Building Industry

June 4, 2008
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is awarding more than $3 billion in grants to states and localities, with several million allocated toward the threat of improvised explosive devices, including everything from radios to hazmat suits. Meanwhile, the U.K. is working with architects, engineers, and private industry to advance education and research on blast-resistant design and materials.

Terrorism threats and critical infrastructure vulnerabilities are national concerns in the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other nations around the world. Yet, there is a marked contrast in how the federal governments in the United States and the U.K. approach public programs that emphasize security in the built environment and urban centers. This difference is especially notable regarding strategies of dealing with the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or vehicle-borne explosives.

Since 9/11, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has provided $23 billion in domestic security financing to state governments. New facilities, known as fusion centers, are designed to collect and analyze data to deter terrorism attacks and strengthen communications, coordination, and response among public agencies at all levels. This approach has resulted in methods to share information between law enforcement and intelligence agencies in what is known as an "all-crimes" or "all-hazards" operation, encompassing terrorism, violent crime, and natural disasters.

News reports indicate that in FY2008, DHS will award more than $3 billion in grants to states, territories, urban areas, and transportation authorities. These programs include the following:

Homeland Security Grant Program:

  • $1,699 million to finance planning, organization, equipment, training, and exercise activities. DHS says that, in 2008, 25 percent of the total amount must be spent to prepare for the threat of IEDs. DHS is directing states and cities to spend at least 25 percent of their funds in this program to enhance state and local law enforcement terrorism prevention capabilities.
  • $877 million to states and territories, including $15 million to engage citizens in community preparedness.
  • $40 million to medical response systems in metropolitan areas to address mass-casualty preparedness.

Infrastructure Protection Program:

  • $852 million for ports and ferry systems, transit systems, Amtrak; highway and trucking, freight railroad carriers, intercity bus systems, and for the creation of security buffer zones around critical infrastructure sites, such as chemical facilities, nuclear and electric plants, dams, and stadiums.

Emergency Management Performance Grants:

  • $291 million to state and local governments for emergency-management activities.

Other Programs:

  • $184 million for border security, high -risk urban areas to plan for catastrophic events, increased reliability of driver's licenses and identification cards, and aid to nonprofit groups considered at high risk for terrorist attacks.

According to this ambitious spending agenda, DHS wants to spend $6.8 million to prepare for the threat of IEDs. Without a game plan, states and local agencies are left to their own devices to come up with ideas on how to spend the money.

In Massachusetts, the Homeland Security grant proposal for up to $20 million sought creative ways to identify how to spend one-quarter of the money, or $5 million, on IEDs. The state offered to upgrade bomb squads and buy hazardous-material suits, radios to communicate among agencies, and explosive-detection devices.

Federal officials claim that states could increase preparedness against a range of terrorist threats. Some state Homeland Security people have claimed that intelligence reports don't support the idea that their small cities or rural or suburban areas are at risk for exploding roadside bombs. Many would prefer to spend the money on policing, crime-fighting activities, and equipment rather than on counterterrorism programs they deem unnecessary, and complain about the DHS financing guidelines.

"If states balk at conditions applied to grant receipts, they should talk to their representatives and senators, who can easily influence DHS grant requirements. Alternatively, a better exchange of information between DHS and the states could occur so both sides understood the other's concerns. This has been a longstanding challenge in the United States post-9/11," observes Mark H. Johnson, director of transportation security at C & H Patriot Security LLC, Alexandria, VA.

Role of the Building Industry
What's missing in this federal and state program for addressing IEDs is identifying the role that architects, engineers, and the building industry can play in developing strategies to design and manage the existing built environment to create vibrant cities that don't resemble armed camps, and enhance public safety in the event of a blast.

Instead of underwriting radios, trucks, and hazmat suits for small towns, consider the potential long-range benefits to public safety if Homeland Security grant funding was invested toward:

  • Educating building owners and facility managers about blast-resistant design strategies, and coordinating operational plans with local agencies.
  • Training students, architects, engineers, landscape architects, and building industry professionals about how to design blast-resistant structures that blend into the built environment.
  • Providing research grants to industry and academia to develop high-performance building materials and systems that are blast-resistant, aesthetic, and affordable for public and civic buildings, which are often considered terrorist targets.

U.K. Enlists Architects and Engineers to Protect Infrastructure
In contrast to the open-ended DHS grant approach, the U.K. has taken a more direct line to defend critical infrastructure by directly engaging architects and civil engineers to participate in the National Security Strategy program, unveiled in March 2008. After the 2005 London Tube attacks and the 2007 Glasgow Airport vehicle bomb incident, British authorities are investigating ways to mitigate the impact of IEDs in the built environment through blast-resistant design.

The program covers terrorism, nuclear weapons, crime, and climate change. According to the New Civil Engineer website (, the British government formally stated the need for design professionals to "actively enhance, adapt, adapt, and rethink the design, construction, and fabric of our public infrastructure to resist the new terror threat of the future."

The U.K. government is advocating a private-sector role and collaboration with industry to improve blast-resistant techniques by pledging to "work with architects and planners to design in safe areas and blast-resistant materials and enhanced physical protection against vehicle-bomb attacks."

Private industry in the U.K. has invested in research and development of blast-resistant products and materials suitable for use at government facilities and iconic buildings. Unlike threats from fire and crime, the threat of people willing to die for a cause has prompted a rethinking toward building protection, from backpack bombers to IEDs. Perimeter security is the first line of defense, and 50- to 100-foot standoff distances are unrealistic in most urban sites. Other creative solutions at the building envelope are often required to supplement these approaches.

Clearly, government agencies at all levels must develop and maintain ways to train for and implement an all-hazards approach to public safety. Federal Homeland Security grants facilitate that process by underwriting opportunities that localities cannot afford to do alone. Sometimes, in the quest for more federal dollars, the local grant requests are not the most effective ways to spend Homeland Security money and are often justified as serving other uses.

But, as the U.K. government has demonstrated, there are significant roles for design professionals, the building industry, and the research community to play in protecting critical infrastructure and the built environment over the long term. Tapping into this vast industry resource should be an agenda item for the next U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary, whoever he or she may be.

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