State Perspective - Alabama

By Joseph Straw

James M.Walker, Jr., is the country’s first and longest-serving director of a cabinet-level state homeland security agency. Walker was tapped in June 2003 to head the Alabama Department of Homeland Security, the first such agency in the United States. Prior to that, he served 20 years as an Army infantry officer and airborne ranger with units including the 25th Infantry and the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) divisions. During his Army career, Walker also served as aide-de-camp to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as an aide to President Ronald Reagan. He also worked as operations briefer to Gen. Colin Powell during Operation Desert Shield and as a congressional fellow and legislative assistant to U.S. Rep. John Tanner (D-TN) and as a congressional liaison officer for the Secretary of the Army. Upon his retirement from the Army as a lieutenant colonel in 2001, Walker worked in Washington, D.C., as a strategic consultant for a Houston-based company. A Georgia native, Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, and a master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Oklahoma. He is a graduate of the Executive Leadership Program at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security in Monterey, California.

Q. What are your office’s responsibilities?

A. The Alabama Department of Homeland Security was created by legislative statute in 2003. It was one of the initiatives of my governor during his first year in office. So I believe that we were the first state in the country to create a cabinet-level department of homeland security by state legislative statute.

And in simple terms if you were to ask my governor how he would define my job, he looks at his homeland security director as the honest broker. And that is somebody that has a strategic approach, looking at the state, and then trying to fill in the gaps where we determine the gaps to be. So when you look at state agencies, the emergency management agency of the state is a separate cabinet department, but that director rolls up under me as the assistant director for emergency preparedness and response. So I do have the EMA that rolls under the homeland security department. But the other entities are really sort of independent and operational. And the EMA is an operational entity so, if you think about it in this context, I don’t get bogged down per se in operational, day-to-day stuff. I take a step back and serve as the governor’s honest broker in trying to see where we can make the most difference, either through policy or the infusion of grant money, or the development of programs that benefit the entire state. So the governor would look at me and say, “OK Jim, I expect you to do everything that you can to ensure that our emergency management Agency is the best in the country. I expect you to do everything that you can to make sure that the director of public safety, who has all the state troopers, is the best in the country. I expect you to look at the department of Public Health, whose director does not work for the governor, but is appointed by a board, but I expect you to make decisions working with them and funds that they receive, to be the best in the country. The same with ag and industry, etc.

But then there’s a focus on making sure as they do in Washington, that we can’t as a nation secure our country from inside the Beltway. It’s going to take all 56 states and territories. Well, it’s the same in Alabama. So we have 67 counties and it is my responsibility to do what I can to try to build strong county programs in each of our 67 counties. So if you look at that approach, it’s what are you doing to benefit people at the tip of the spear and to shape state agencies to serve the overall umbrella of the state.

Q. What’s your assessment of our progress as a nation?

A. I think that we have increased awareness and begun the dialogue. Now, a lot of folks will be crucial of a lot of decisions in Washington, but you know, a lot of this is fine-tuning. We’ve done OK on the major muscle moves, but we’ve got to continue to fine-tune. I think that one of the challenges that we are really faced with is to take advantage of everything that we have, and to promote personal responsibility among our citizens, and the ability to engage states and locals in a really responsible way.

Let me give you a couple of examples. When we talk about, let’s just talk about response and recovery; a FEMA mission. Well when you think about all the things that happen in this country every day, from chemical spills to fires to IEDs, you name it, lots of bad things happen, tornadoes, hurricanes, of everything that happens FEMA, as an agency, only becomes involved in less than 2 percent of everything that happens. At the state level here in Alabama only becomes involved in roughly 11 percent of everything bad that happens in the state. So that means clearly, 87 percent-plus of all the bas stuff that goes on is managed at the county or local level. And so it seems to me, one of the areas we need to fine tune is to put the emphasis where it should be. A guy named John Peters wrote a book in the 1980s called In Search of Excellence. And the premise of the book was, you’ve got to figure out what the main thing is, and make the main thing the main thing. And that the customer is always right, regardless of what business you’re in. Well the customer for us are first responders and state and local people. They’re the main thing, and we’ve got to fine tune our systems and processes to in fact make them the main thing. And I don’t think that we do as good a job at that as we should. But that will cure a lot of our ills.

The other is that at the federal level, the federal government needs to realize that they have a lot of willing state and local partners. And I’m going to give you just an example. When I was in the Army, we were the active Army was serving in Bosnia pretty heavily, and in fact our active Army units were being tapped out. And there was a decision made inside the Pentagon to send a National Guard division to replace an active division in Bosnia because of how the operational tempo was killing the active force. And you could have heard the giant sucking sound coming out of the Pentagon saying “No, no, no. We cannot send the National Guard. They’re not as proficient as an active division, humma humma,” etc. but when the Pentagon realized it had no choice, it sent a National Guard Division to Bosnia and they did a terrific job. As a result they sent another National Guard division to Bosnia, and then on and on. And now you look at Iraq today, and you look at the percentage of reserve component units there. National Guard and reserve make up about 65 percent of the fighting force in Iraq today.

So you can see where we went from not trusting a Guard unit to now they take up most of the force. There has to be a tipping point where the people in Washington who are holding fast to a lot of core competencies like immigration enforcement, customs enforcement, TSA, where the federal government does not have enough people on the books, yet they have lots of willing partners who can do the job really well. So there’s going to be a tipping point at some point in the county where people in Washington say you know, we’ve got to empower the locals to take on some of these jobs. And when we do that, we’re going to be a lot better off.

So there’s the issue of the main thing, which is making the guy on Main Street a priority, and then taking advantage of everything the guy on Main Street brings. If we can do those two things, we will shore up a lot of our problems.

Q. What are the states primary assets and threats, natural or manmade?

A. If experience is your guide, we have been pummeled with five major hurricanes and a tropical storm during my boss’s tenure. We’ve also had over 450 tornados, 1,600 reports of floods, so natural disasters are an issue for us, and one that we have to deal with constantly. But on the manmade side, we have a very robust chemical industry in Alabama, we also have some cultural and iconic things to pay attention to, we’ve got the 14th busiest port in the country, we’ve got the second-largest research and development park in the county and it’s number one for the defense industrial base, and its up in north Alabama. So Alabama’s a pretty diverse state. We’ve got the second largest medical research infrastructure in the South. We’re an agricultural state, the third largest in exports in poultry, 22nd in beef cattle, so and then we’ve got four major military installations, second-largest financial infrastructure in the south behind Charlotte, and places where you have lots of mass gatherings. We’ve got two college football stadiums on campus that house over 90,000 people on Saturdays, and we’ve got the Talladega Superspeedway. Now, the interesting thing about Talladega is that we had a Congressional Committee come down, some staffers come down, and spend a week with us at the Talladega Superspeedway. And this is what’s fascinating about that, is that the Super Bowl is declared a special security event in our country. Super Bowl houses 80,000 people, lasts three hours. Talladega Superspeedway will last two weeks and have 300,000 people, and so that’s a drill for us, just as far as individual events.

I’ve got challenges with hate groups. We have well over 30 registered hate groups in our state; we’ve had some problems with them here recently. Alabama is an interesting state and you know the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s also the first president of the Confederacy was sworn in here, and we’ve got people who are still hovering on the fringe of both of those issues. So it’s an interesting place.

Q. How has your personal background helped you on the job?

A. Well I was a soldier in the United States Army. So I spent 20 years in uniform, and the military model for teamwork, training, I think has served me well in this job. And it serves me well in another capacity as well. Because I’m not necessarily an operational guy, and I didn’t come into this job with a bias toward firefighters or police officers or emergency managers or emergency medical technicians or 9-11 operators. I didn’t have that background. I think that some people in some states they struggle a little bit because if you come into this job with a background in law enforcement then I think that a broader subset of your first responder community are going to think that you favor one group over another. When you come in as a soldier, you really don’t have any institutional bias toward any of the first responder groups and I think that we’ve been able to articulate that fairly well and get pretty broad support out of our first responder community.

Q. What has been the biggest challenge?

A. I think the team building. I think we’re there now. Having been on the job now for almost six years, I think that we’re moving into a pretty good place in Alabama with our overall homeland security efforts. I think that different groups either accept or respect what we’ve done, and understand the methodology. But when you’re a new entity and you’ve got a lot of money and you’re trying to make the right decisions, you’ve got folks that come after you, folks that don’t necessarily, are distrustful of change, and building the team, it was a labor of love, but it was tough. But now that we’ve done it and we’ve got some programs that get some national recognition and some of our priorities, the governor’s priorities that we’ve executed, are at least respected in the state. I work for a conservative Republican governor. Our legislature is two-thirds democrat to one-third Republican in both houses, and so that…the team building across the spectrum has been tough but rewarding at this point.

How would you characterize your office’s relationship with its federal partners?  What would you change, if anything?

I think that my biggest beef has been that sort of what I explained to you earlier. It’s we’re trying to make a case that the people serving on Main Street ought to be the focus. It ought to be the focus at the state level, it ought to be the focus from the national level. And when we make a case to benefit our citizens, our first responders, and we are either denied or it becomes blatantly obvious that these are decisions made by people in white-walled rooms in Washington without a clue about what’s going on outside of the Beltway, it becomes incredibly frustrating. So, I think that we’ve had some leaders in Washington that want to do the right thing, but then they get this quagmire with lawyers and this or that and it just turns into something that we don’t recognize. And I think that has been my biggest source of frustration.

An example would be a string of tornadoes that went through southern Tennessee and northern Alabama that killed 20-some folks in Tennessee, five or six people in Alabama, a very rural part of Alabama. Tennessee was declared as a disaster within hours just about and all of these FEMA people show up in Tennessee. Well, because it was a rural community in Alabama, we didn’t see anybody from FEMA. We added up our totals, we asked for a disaster declaration understanding what it had done in our communities. We didn’t get an answer for three weeks. Then we got one on Friday afternoon at 5:00 going into a three-day weekend, and they didn’t even bother to call the governor to tell him that they were denying his request. Now that’s the kind of stuff that you just scratch your head and say, “Where are we putting the priority here?” It’s the same line of tornadoes, and it just happened to be rural people.

And then other decisions sort of related to politics somewhat. When you look at the funding for homeland security grants. It’s based largely on risk and need. And you’ve got 50 of the largest cities in the country that are receiving more grant money than the rest of the country combined. Now the irony in that is that’s the way that Congress has designed it. But, who is in a better position to generate revenue to benefit their first responders? Urban areas, or rural areas? And when you consider that dynamic, you know that rural people can’t afford the things that people in the cities do. And we’re only going to be as strong as our weakest link, and understanding that rural America provides the surge capability for cities. And so that dynamic I think frustrates me, but it’s a political one.

And on a macro level, the fact that we had 85 or 86 committees and subcommittees in Congress with their fingers in how to dispose grants colored for homeland security is going to just muddle the process up. And as a result, inefficiencies and bad decisions are going to come out of that. 

Q. Do you think states’ homeland security efforts are fiscally sustainable?

A. First of all, there is not enough money to give everybody everything that they need. There’s probably not enough to give any homeland security director enough for everything he or she needs. And that’s why you have to make smart decisions. But when you’re making decisions, one of the decisions you can make in Washington is to give the people, homeland security directors, or give the state administrative agencies and their governors the latitude of knowing what they need in their state. I don’t understand how somebody can sit in Washington and tell me that I need to spend 25 percent of my money on IEDs, and 25 percent of my money on planning. How about since I’m down here and I’m just as much of a patriot as you are inside the Beltway, how about letting me decide, with my governor, how we can best serve our citizens here, and what our priorities are. That piece of it kind of makes me scratch my head.

But on the money piece, it’s an issue of what is a core competency for our country. Is provide for the common defense a core competency? If it is and you and I agree that it is, then we need to fund it, OK? If we choose not to fund it, let me tell you what’s going to happen. You go to any governor, and my governor has been hugely successful at creating jobs. Governors are interested in jobs, education, and healthcare. Because that’s what citizens expect. So you go out and you create a bunch of jobs. And lo and behold it triggers your cost share for additional federal funding. Let me just give you an example. So hypothetically, I don’t know that this is true, let’s just say that the average median income for a family in Alabama is $30,000. My boss goes out and creates a bunch of jobs, raises the median income in the state from 30,000 to 34,000. Alright, well when we hit 32,500 per family, our cost share for Medicare just jumped up 25 percent. So in one fiscal year, my boss has $160 million he’s got to come up with to fund Medicare in his state. Now, facing a budget crisis, do you think my boss is going to let elderly citizens go without healthcare to buy first responder equipment? It’s not going to happen. And so what you will see if the money dries up, is that legislatures and governors around the country won’t spend the money. So if it is a core function of our government, then we’ve got to continue to make the investment. If we decide that it’s not, then let’s just decide that it’s not. But we’re going to have to suffer the consequences when something happens to us.

Q. Has the state engaged the private sector in the homeland security mission?

A. Yes. I’ll give you three really good examples. We hit the volunteer citizen group really hard here. And I can tell you that were it not for the outreach of faith-based organizations, volunteer groups, business in the wake of a disaster, we would not have come through these hurricanes as well as the state of Alabama has. Our citizens and our businesses come out to assist. So that’s one piece of it.

We have created a Web portal called SHARE, where we have an online dialogue with the private sector, it’s not a zero-sum game for them and we encourage a dialogue between security professionals and the private sector. But if you ask most homeland security directors, they will tell you that engaging the private sector is one of the toughest nuts to crack. We have a program called Be Ready Business, where we are working with the Chamber of Commerce and the League of Municipalities to create a guide for our emergency managers to go and sit down with any business in their small town and help them become more resilient—things that they need to do in the wake of a disaster, because let’s face it, most people will tell you that look, once I can flush the toilet, get the faucet back on and the power’s back on, we’ve gotten through a disaster. But you really don’t start getting though a disaster until people start going back to work and drawing a paycheck. So that’s that engagement with the private sector.

The other is to leverage technology. We’ve got a program that’s won a number of national awards called virtual Alabama, and we’re trying to show some success now by uploading all of the cameras and security systems and the floor plans in our schools throughout the state. And when we do that, it gives me a real strong voice for engaging the private sector and saying look, there’s no reason why you should not put your plant cameras, your floor plans, your things, behind a firewall that we can then release if something happens at your plant, that allows the first responders to see what they’re getting into when they show up to deal with a shooter or a bombing or whatever at your plant.

I’m knee-deep in our safe schools initiative right now. I’ve got to grow that out over the next year, and let’s face it. When you’re engaging the private sector, they’re a little skeptical of government. You’ve got to show them success, and you’ve got to show the ability to engage them and show that the system that you have can work, and it’s going to take me a little bit of time to do it. But I think that it will be revolutionary when we do, and it will take technology and bridge together the public and private sector in ways that they have not been before.

So we’ve got some pretty aggressive programs, but that again, that’s a tough area for all homeland security directors.

Q. Did any recent responses or exercises provide valuable lessons?

A. We learn every time we do one of these things. We continue to learn that when we deploy our assets to help our neighbors, we can’t have enough satellite communications. If they have structural collapse of their communications. We also recognize that if we have a common operating picture, like we do with Virtual Alabama throughout the entire Gulf region, that we would all benefit, whether they’re coming to help me or I’m coming to help them. We’re also continuing to look at other statistics within state governments and societal figures and some demographics that will help us in our evacuations. Every time we have an evacuation we learn how to do things  better the next time, and we practice that stuff in Alabama. We will have evacuation drills before hurricane season next year to make sure we’ve captured the things that we’ve learned this year. So every time we have something we learn from it.

Q. What are your main goals for the coming year?

A. My boss has two years left on the term. And the term before the citizens of Alabama elect another governor, and we are in the process of looking at those legacy systems that we want to have in place for the next administration. Virtual Alabama is one, our Be Ready Alabama campaign is another, strengthening the investments that we’ve made in our 67 counties, these strong county teams. We have capabilities in Alabama that were unheard of 10 years ago. And we have gotten people to buy into our philosophy that look, you may not have everything that you need, but we’ve got it somewhere in the state, and if you need it it’s just as much yours as it is the persons’ that owns it. That’s a tough thing to try to convince things of, but I think that we’re on the cusp of doing that.

We have made a lot of investments in bridging together radio systems at the county level, and we’re almost doing it at the regions now. Hopefully we’ll be at the state level by the time my boss goes out of office. We’re going toward that now, but we’ve got some legacy things that we’re starting to transition to make sure they’re in place when the citizens have to elect a new governor.






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