When public safety gets caught in the middle

In time of crisis, should governments rely on non-governmental organizations or should those groups be asked to stand aside for the greater good?

Public safetyFormer Canadian Finance minister Jim Flaherty was once asked whether the government would be or should be providing a certain service. He cleverly said that if you could find that service in the yellow pages, the government shouldn’t be involved.

(For younger readers, the yellow pages were a listing of businesses in your city.)

Flaherty’s point was that government shouldn’t be duplicating the work the private sector was doing. I’m not sure if he amplified on whether the private sector need be doing a good job to keep the government out.

I knew the late Flaherty. He was Jesuit-trained and mentally tough. I bet he’d have entertained a further discussion about whether the non-governmental sector is best or even qualified to do what it’s doing.

Take the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in emergency response. We’ve all seen the Red Cross, St. John Ambulance, and Salvation Army at the scene of fires, floods and disasters. We should be grateful for their service.

But let’s up the ante and examine these roles in big, modern emergencies in the age of terror. We know that well-meaning volunteers can overwhelm the site of an emergency, clogging up roads and confusing the responders. Baltimore’s emergency plan notes this and so do many others.

But the Maryland community loses the main point about volunteers messing things up – they may do so intentionally. Baltimore plan writers think the best when they say that “People are kind and want to help disaster victims.” This is true but Baltimore fails to plan for the worst when it abdicates a fundamental government responsibility – citizen safety.

“Baltimore County government does not intend to supervise or interfere with the normal or routine collection or distribution of donations,” the plan says. The assumption is that volunteers will handle this. The food bank will handle food, for example. Plan writers list acceptable donations – office supplies, bleach, lotion, Windex and such.

What an opportunity for dastardly or deranged people. The unimaginative terrorist could spray all this with the plain old influenza virus and make everybody sick for a few days and hamper response.

More imaginative would be to put something noxious in the spray bottle of Windex and pollute the air. Who needs clean windows in an urban emergency anyway? Bleach is great to spread around to kill germs – unless there’s something else in the container. And lotion is great for cracked hands and weather-beaten skin – unless it contains something harmful that you’re rubbing into your skin.

Far-fetched? Before 9/11, serious law enforcement and counter-terrorist people thought the biggest threats in North America came from animal rights, the abortion issue pro and con and environmentalists. The CIA thought fundamentalist Christianity and Judaism were bigger threats than Islam.

Well the world changes.

But it’s worth nothing that the Animal Rights Militia (ARM) claimed to have contaminated tubes of an ointment to protest the testing of the substance at a lab. As documented by Peter Joyce and Neil Wain in Palgrave Dictionary of Public Order Policing, Protest and Political Violence, this occurred in 2007, long after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (Their book is a good read on other threats, too.)

The emergency plan for Houston, Texas, notes that the city and county don’t want to manage donations. Donations may overwhelm responders. Donations may be from people with improper motivation – tax receipts, endorsements and resumé building. These aren’t the kind folks they have in Baltimore. Really.

If it’s a nuisance in Houston and a serious threat in most of the rest of the world, I bet it’s a threat in Baltimore.

Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities.

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