N.Y. Security Chief Outlines Statewide Strategy
New York has always been a focal point of America and since 9/11 the nexus of homeland security issues. In an exclusive interview, the newly appointed director of the state’s Office of Homeland Security, Brigadier General F. David Sheppard, shares his vision for coordinating how government, first responders, private industry and citizens can prevent, detect and respond to terrorism.
Around the same time a small private plane was crashing into a high-rise on the New York’s Upper East Side — rekindling memories and fears of 9/11 in the wake of its five-year anniversary — the state’s Office of Homeland Security (OHS) was introducing its new director. Although there was no relationship, and we now know the fatal aircraft accident involved New York Yankees Pitcher Cory Lidle rather than a terrorist, these events reinforced the urgency and prioritizing of security efforts.
Spearheading these efforts for the state of New York is Brigadier General F. David Sheppard, who was recently appointed by Governor George Pataki to succeed James McMahon who retired after serving as the state’s OHS director since 2003. Sheppard is a decorated Vietnam War veteran who has served as OHS’ Weapons of Mass Destruction Task Force director and is the commander of the New York Army National Guard 53rd Troop Command. In the latter capacity, he coordinated the Guard’s emergency response to civil authorities during 9/11.
In his new role with OHS, Sheppard will coordinate all state efforts to detect, identify, address, respond and prevent terrorist acts from occurring within the state of New York, which sets the pace for the rest of the nation. In addition to working with all the counties and cities within the state, his responsibilities include acting as the liaison to the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
“I am confident that under Dave’s leadership, the Office of Homeland Security will continue to coordinate efforts with local and federal governments to ensure we are doing everything possible to protect New Yorkers from terrorist threats,” said Governor Pataki in a statement.
In an exclusive interview with Security Sales & Integration, General Sheppard reveals his strategies for securing America’s highest-profile city and surrounding areas. He also explains the critical roles played by government, private industry and citizens, and why he places such a high premium on effective communication, collaboration and intelligence sharing.
Accurate Radiation Detection Tools Top Director’s Wish List
How are things going in the few short weeks since your appointment as New York’s director of the Office of Homeland Security?
Sheppard: Things have been going very well. Director McMahon took his time, once he found out I was being appointed, and showed me the ropes of the program. He also took me around the state to introduce me to a lot of the key players all the way from Buffalo to New York and Long Island. His goal was a seamless transition from him to me, and I believe we are meeting his goal.
What is the relationship between the state’s Office of Homeland Security and the national Department of Homeland Security? Is New York handled any differently from other states?
Sheppard: First of all, it’s a good relationship we have with DHS. The relationship is primarily based on coordination and information sharing. When I say information sharing, I’m talking about intelligence, funding and a whole list of things DHS does for us in that capacity.
I don’t think New York is treated differently than any other state. I’ve been to a couple of meetings with other state homeland security directors and I believe the relationships they have with DHS is on the same level. They’re all very proactive with DHS. I myself talk to DHS several times a week; they also call us. They call New York to see how things are going. It’s a very good relationship.
Specifically, what would you say are your greatest challenges today, and how can they be overcome?
Sheppard: My biggest challenge is to effectively coordinate the partnership and teamwork with the multiple multi-disciplined agencies, not only at the state but also at the local and federal levels. We all need to be working as a team. Most important to me is intelligence, information, and sharing that intelligence to prevent another terrorist attack.
We have to have those operating systems, and that includes having meetings and conferences to talk with one another, to keep everyone on the same page. That’s my biggest challenge, and I like to stay very proactive. I like to go out and meet people and see how they’re doing and make sure their communications systems are in place to overcome that challenge.
I believe the chemical, biological, radioactive, nuclear and explosive sector is also a challenge right now, primarily because we have identified needs but the industry really hasn’t met these needs. One area that comes to mind is radiation detection. We need proven equipment out there that has the capability to locate, identify and actually specify what types of materials we’ve come across to determine whether or not it’s a normal material like an X-ray machine or something that has the potential to be terrorist material. We are spending a lot of time with this. We also need to fine-tune the concepts of operations in the event of radiation; how it is handled, who you call, etc. We have processes in place, but it could use fine-tuning. It goes back to information sharing, teamwork and partnering. Communications is huge in this field.
Communicating With Government, Industry Is a High Priority
What methods/tools are you using to get your message across within the government, to business and to the general public?
Sheppard: Well, primarily, to get my messages out there, the phone works well, the E-mail system works well, and meetings and conferences, as I mentioned earlier. I try to go out on the road and address groups like first responders. I was in Niagara Falls last week talking to the first responders. I stood there in front of them and talked about the importance of teamwork and partnership across the spectrum of disciplines.
The importance of information sharing cannot be overstated. For example, if you see something suspicious, report it. We have the Operation Safeguard program in our state as well as the New York State Terrorism Tips Hotline, which anybody can call to report something suspicious. They can do it anonymously, and we’ll take a look at it.
Have you spoken with organizations within the state such as the Port Authority or Mass Transit Authority? What is your intended relationship with them?
Sheppard: Yes, I know key personnel in both the Port Authority and Mass Transit Authority, and other organizations throughout the state from my experience working in homeland security after 9/11 in my National Guard officer capacity. I meet with or talk with representatives from those agencies on a weekly basis at a minimum to see if there is anything I can do for them.
I have a goal to go to the New York City office once or twice a week and spend time down in that area to reach out and meet key people from task forces, the fire and police departments, the Port Authority and other similar organizations. I believe it’s all part of team building and partnering, which is a key ingredient to success in this business today.
If they tell you they do need something, what’s your course of action?
Sheppard: If I can’t answer the question at that time, I take it back and we have a fine team here i
n the office of Homeland Security both in the New York Ciy office and up here in Albany.
I pull a team together, and we put the issue out on the table, brainstorm it and go from there. I believe in empowering our people here in the agency. We have a great team and a lot of brainpower with a lot of good ideas.
I then take that and run with the product. For example, I may go to DHS or to another state, or I may go to the governor’s office to try to come up with a solution for them. I’m very proactive in that department.
The other thing I do is reach out to industry, and often we get invitations to attend events such as the recent ASIS meeting at West Point where I addressed that group. I was at a group meeting down in Manhattan yesterday where they brought industry and government together. There were three hours of briefings by government and industry and then they held a panel discussion to try to come to a resolution on particular issues.
I try to attend as many of these events as my schedule permits. It is a very high priority.
DHS Needs to Solicit More Input From States on Key Decisions
What is the top success story to emerge out of the homeland security at both the national and state levels?
Sheppard: I would say the intelligence fusion center near Albany or our Upstate New York Regional Information Center. They serve as clearing houses for all the intelligence that comes from all disciplines of law enforcement. When I talk intelligence fusion, it comes from all disciplines of law enforcement: FBI, task forces, state police, the sheriff’s department and local police departments.
We have 16 counter-terrorism zones and each one has an experienced leader. They meet often to discuss intelligence and threats. This information is then analyzed to determine if it is actionable. If so, it then becomes operational. It is a well-oiled system in this state.
We are also linked into the federal system, and I think DHS has a fine system as well. I would say the major success story – a product of working together – is the intelligence fusion center.
What’s your opinion of current DHS leadership and what do you think might be accomplished during the next few years?
Sheppard: DHS is a large bureaucracy. I believe they have 180,000 people there led by Secretary [Michael] Chertoff. I think overall DHS has been doing a good job. It’s a very big challenge. We have prevented another terrorist attack, which to me signals they’re doing their job and they’re doing it well.
There are some areas where any large bureaucracy can use improvements and DHS is no different. What I’d like to see accomplished during the next few years is the continuance of assisting and developing technology based on the needs we have in the intelligence or information-sharing sectors.
I would also expect to see an improved dialogue between DHS and the states, or at least New York, allowing us to have a seat at the table during certain decision-making processes.
One of the examples I like to use is the critical installation databases, and there have been discrepancies in what DHS has listed as critical infrastructure in our state. I believe if DHS had allowed New York state subject matter experts to be involved in that process, they would have had a much better product. I would also like to see funding awarded based on threat. As you know, New York City is the No. 1 threat as demonstrated by attacks or attempted attacks the past 20 years or so.
Success Hinges on Citizenry Reporting Suspicious Behaviors
Are you surprised nothing substantial has happened here since 9/11? Has that been mostly luck or because of the efforts that have been made?
Sheppard: I’m not surprised because I know the federal government, intelligence agencies and states around the nation have been doing a wonderful job, collaboratively, in preventing another terrorist attack. We have tentacles that are worldwide. The system and processes are working. Every once in a while there is an anomaly, but for the most part the system is working well.
I do not lose sleep over the threat of terrorism. I know there are other types of terrorism besides transnational terrorism. We have the domestic cell issues and the homegrown issues through the radicalization process. There’s always a chance that something can surface without our knowledge, but we’re very proactive in this sector.
How can we deal with these sleeper cells?
Sheppard: Through our Operation Safeguard program, the federal, state and local governments, intelligence systems, and reporting processes. If we see something, say something. Very close to home here, we had the Toronto 17, and there have been other cells out there that have been discovered before they could hurt anybody.
My highest kudos and hats off to the law enforcement sector for taking information as it’s reported, analyzing it, developing it into actionable information, and then taking care of business as necessary.
Do you believe our personal liberties in terms of privacy have been compromised since 9/11? Have we gone as far as we need to go?
Sheppard:Well, the laws are the laws and we need to abide by them. In my opinion, these laws are giving us what we need to prevent another terrorist attack. Also, if a citizen sees something suspicious, we encourage him or her to say something. They can do that and then we can do what we have to do without violating any privacy rights.
Electronic Solutions Are ‘Critical’ to Homeland Security Efforts
How important are electronic security systems such as video surveillance and access control in securing New York and America?
Sheppard: I think electronic security systems are absolutely critical in securing New York and America. They are necessary tools in our toolbox in the war on terrorism. They’re not the only tools, but they are necessary tools.
One of the things we value highly in this office is our relationship with private industry and their ability to develop perimeter security with these tools for their own protection. We need to utilize technology to achieve our goal of preventing terrorist attacks happening through this deterrence.
I strongly encourage the private sector to work with local law enforcement as well.
Do you think government officials have a good sense of the capabilities of such systems so they can make smart decisions deploying these systems throughout major cities in your state?
Sheppard:Yes I do. That’s really a twoway street. I know government officials reach out to industry and talk to them to seek out their capabilities. This also takes place through conferences, meetings, E-mails, letters and telephone outreach from the industry to our office and to government asking for an invitation to come in and demonstrate their products and capabilities. I know this is ongoing and I believe government officials and the subject matter experts on their staffs have this knowledge.
We here in the New York State OHS are very active in that regard and we’re always looking for new technology that is credible and has service support with it to close the gaps in our homeland security strategy in the area of operations, wherever that may be. So we’re always looking for new technology to close gaps, and we do that through a vetting committee.
We have an individual that is in charge of vetting. Depending on what the type of product it is, that person will put together a team of experts within the agency or from another state agency or possibly from a police department and we will sit and allow the vend
or to demonstrate the product to determine its feasibility in our program. So we are very active there.
I just want to reiterate one point. This is a federal government, state government, local government and industry team effort. From what I’ve seen, it is working.
How can providers of electronic security systems and services find more information about getting involved?
Sheppard: There are technology divisions at most levels of government and those providers can go to the DHS Web site at www.dhs.gov. For New York state there is the Office of General Services at www.ogs.state.ny.us. Also, there is some limited information on the OHS site at www.security.state.ny.us. I recommend checking these out.
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