THE MAGAZINE

State Perspective - Ohio

By Joseph Straw

William F. Vedra, Jr., has served as executive director of Ohio Homeland Security (OHS) since 2007. Vedra first joined the agency in 2004 as deputy director of the state’s office of domestic preparedness, coordinating efforts to prevent, respond to, and recover from major emergencies, while providing oversight for state and local coordination of infrastructure protection. Vedra is a 25-year veteran of the fire service, who retired from the Columbus Division of Fire in 2003 as a battalion chief. He later led Ohio Task Force 1 (OH-TF1), part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Urban Search and Rescue Response System, deploying to the World Trade Center site after 9-11 and to Florida following Hurricane Ivan in 2004. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Vedra was a 2005 senior fellow at George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute. (His remarks have been edited to accommodate space limitations. Read the full interview online at www.securitymanagement.com).

Q. What are your responsibilities? What’s a typical day or week like?

A. Our office is one of eight divisions within the state Department of Public Safety. If you think of the four homeland security missions as protect, prevent, respond, and recover, we focus on prevention and protection. So we have a branch dedicated to counterterrorism (prevention), which includes our state fusion center, the Strategic Analysis and Information Center (SAIC). The protect branch focuses on infrastructure. That includes implementation of the National Infrastructure Protection Plan, national priorities, and regulation of private security guards. Administratively, our operation focuses on strategic planning and local coordination.

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

A. I spent most of my career in the fire service. I was a paramedic for 25-plus years, a firefighter for almost 25; I retired as a battalion chief with the City of Columbus Division of Fire; also, I was involved with our state’s urban search-and-rescue team, which I led for a time before I finished, so I have a lot of background in rescue.

I was also coordinator of communications in our dispatch center in Columbus, and that required working with a lot of other fire agencies around the city and county. So project management and ability to work with a lot of different agencies were some of the skills I developed, and they, of course, help in homeland security.

Q. What is the state doing to protect critical infrastructure and key resources?

A. We’re implementing Automated Critical Asset Management System (ACAMS), which is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) infrastructure protection software. We’ve loaded about 14,000 infrastructure sites in to ACAMS, and we have about 50 people trained across the state. We’re also very active with the DHS’s Buffer Zone Protection Program (BZPP), which provides grants to local agencies to better protect some of the infrastructure by securing perimeter areas. We’re very concerned about enlisting local agencies to help us, so we have a “see something, say something” program that we market heavily. We’re not a large agency, so building collaboration, enlisting partners, is an important part of our mission.

Q. Is it a challenge convincing the private sector to invest in critical infrastucture security?

A. That is a challenge. But BZPP is a good example of how you can help private sector infrastructure sites with grant money. It builds partnerships between the local law enforcement agency and the critical infrastructure sites; it gets them talking at a new level, and through grant money, you can do things that help both entities.

There’s more to it than just spending money, however. We did intense spending for a long time. Now we’re graduating to intelligent spending. I think the third level we have to achieve is good risk management. There’s not enough money to protect everything against anything at any time, so money’s not always the answer.

Q. How would you characterize your state’s relationship with the federal government?

A. I’m not real critical of it. Terrorism is complex. The solutions are complex. If it was easy, anybody would be in these positions to do it. I think they are getting better at it. I like the federal government’s revision of the National Response Plan to the National Response Framework and the National Preparedness Guidelines. There’s been some criticism but I read them, and I think they’re on target.

And we’ve had really excellent cooperation and collaboration with our DHS infrastructure protection advisors. We have a DHS analyst assigned to our fusion center. We have a state preparedness officer who’s really engaged and is there every time we need him. So the federal partners that have been assigned to Ohio, I couldn’t be more pleased with. It’s not perfect. I don’t know of any agency or organization that is doing it perfectly, but I think it’s pretty good.

Q. Can you discuss the state’s intelligence fusion center?

A. We’re proud of our fusion center. It’s not the typical arrangement of a state fusion center, with one law enforcement agency. We have a couple circles. The law enforcement side includes an FBI analyst, and we have representation from the state departments of Agriculture, Transportation, Energy, and Health and the state fire service and emergency medical services.

I think we have a great team. It’s a diverse community. Not all the information comes from law enforcement. A lot of it comes from public safety or other disciplines. So we’re trying to gather and get that input from a lot of sources.

Q. What the biggest challenge of your job?

A. Building cooperation and collaboration. Getting people to think of solutions in different ways than maybe they have in the past. Conveying the urgency of our work without being alarmist.

Q. Has the state pursued any other public-private collaboration? 

A. Yes. We have about 150 miles of international border with Canada along Lake Erie, with issues of drugs, weapons, and smuggling of different sorts. About a year ago, we launched the Northern Border Initiative, and it’s been very successful.

We have, I believe, three federal agencies, four state agencies, and 56 local agencies all working together to patrol the border along Lake Erie. Through partnerships and memoranda of understanding, a local officer could ride on a state Ohio Department of Natural Resources boat or a Coast Guard boat. A critical part of the program is working with marine operators and the different establishments up there, so they’re our eyes and ears. We’re, I think, the only state in the country that has a program like that.

Q. What are your agency’s goals for the coming year?

A. To further institutionalize that infrastructure protection, the use of ACAMS. We have regional Terrorism Early Warning Groups forming in Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. We want to lay the foundation for intelligence fusion and information sharing among them.

We also want to establish a terrorism liaison officer program throughout the state, much like a crime prevention program, to develop a corps of local officers specially trained in terrorism issues, possibly with security clearances, so that we sort of have a terrorism expert at arm’s reach from every police or fire department in the state.

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