THE MAGAZINE

State Perspective - Oklahoma

By Joseph Straw

Kerry Pettingill is director of the Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security. He began his career in public service in 1982 as a state trooper with the Oklahoma Highway Patrol (OHP). Specializing in bomb disposal, hazardous materials response, and tactical operations, Pettingill was among the first responders to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing on April 19, 1995. He has served as commander of the OHP Bomb Squad and tactical teams, as liaison to the regional FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), and as the state’s deputy director of homeland security. He received a medal of valor from the Oklahoma Chiefs of Police and a commendation for bravery from the Oklahoma House of Representatives. A lieutenant colonel in the OHP, Pettingill is a graduate of Southern Nazarene University, the FBI National Academy, and the FBI Hazardous Devices School. (His remarks have been edited to accommodate space limitations. Read the full interview online.)

Q. What are the responsibilities of your office?

A. Our office was permanently established in 2004, separate from the state’s Department of Emergency Management, to prevent, reduce vulnerability to, minimize the damage from, and recover from terrorist attacks. We are responsible for the statewide emergency all-hazards response system, which includes establishing regional response teams. We are also responsible for the state advisory system, and we are also the designated State Administrative Agency for the federal Homeland Security Grant Program.

Q. What are some of the top threats and critical assets you focus on?

A. Our major industries in Oklahoma are agriculture, oil and gas, and defense. We’re the number two producer of natural gas in the United States, and we produce 60-plus million barrels of oil per year. We obviously have a lot of pipelines and transfer facilities within the state. Defense-wise, the air logistics center at Tinker Air Force Base is one of only three in the United States. Agriculture is very difficult to get your arms around, from crops in the field to meat on the grocer’s shelves.

I also have concerns that others might want to follow the path of Timothy McVeigh, which ultimately led him to blow up the Murrah Federal Building in 1995. In October 2005 Joel Hinrichs, who was a student at the University of Oklahoma, blew himself up outside of Memorial Stadium during a nationally televised football game with 85,000 people in the stadium. I don’t know how many documented cases of suicide bombers there are in the United States. With Hinrichs, unfortunately, we will never know what his true intentions were.

I read in the paper that “homegrown” groups are seven times more likely than overseas groups to commit crimes or commit some kind of violence in the United States. And [while that’s not just terrorism] I have been preaching that we need to continue to focus on domestic terrorism since day one.

Q. How does the Oklahoma City bombing affect the practice of homeland security in Oklahoma?

A. The experience of it, actually being there, helps me understand the effects that it has on a community, the region, and the state, relative to those who observed it from outside. It’s just like the people who experienced 9-11 firsthand, only they know what it felt like to be there at the time. I know what it felt like for me to witness 9-11 as it developed on television, and the shock and horror that I had, but I cannot even imagine what the people there were experiencing. It takes an actual experience like that to truly appreciate what has happened.

Q. What’s been the biggest surprise on the job?

A. Even in the administrative law enforcement positions that I’ve had, commanding the state’s bomb squad and tactical teams, or as liaison to the regional Joint Terrorism Task Force, I didn’t have to deal very much with the political side of things. Politics is new to me, obviously. And I still don’t deal with it very often. But I just find that it’s frustrating for me at times, because it doesn’t seem that common sense always prevails.

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

A. We have great relationships with the federal folks that we have consistent contact with in the state: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) representatives, the FBI, and the Secret Service. But I think sometimes the perspective of federal officials working at the local level is much different than the view from Washington. That is one of the issues that I would have with the federal government. They always talk about transparency and things of that nature, and I would just hope that it would be reciprocal, that they would become more transparent on what they are doing or intend to do, and why. Sometimes it seems to me that they’re saying one thing but doing another. That’s often frustrating, but again,  I can’t emphasize more what a great relationship we have on a state and local level.

Q. How does your agency’s budget break down?

A. Our state budget is very minimal, so we very much survive on being able to use the federal funds that are available to us under the federal grant programs.  We’re lucky that we have tasked to our office state personnel whose salaries are paid by their own agencies.

DHS continues to require multiyear spending plans. It’s difficult for us, as I think it is for every state, to draft multi-year plans when federal dollars come year-by-year.  You can build a five-year plan based on what you know it’s going to cost you to operate, but then you receive federal funding that’s significantly less that what you anticipated. So you have to shift and redo those budgets.  

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

A. The InfraGard and Agroguard information-sharing programs are our mainstays in Oklahoma. They’re both coordinated through the FBI, and we find that those groups are very, very helpful. We are building out our state intelligence fusion center, and our plans include a private sector portion, especially our large private partners: the petroleum-based companies, telecommunications, public utilities, things like that.

Q. Is it a challenge convincing private operators to harden their critical infrastructure assets?

A. Coming from a government background, it was difficult for me, in the beginning, to understand why private industry wouldn’t spend money on security. But as was pointed out to me by a friend who’s in the private security business, businesses typically view security as a negative insofar as finances are concerned. It’s always “in the red.” It’s not a revenue-generating portion of that company, so they want to spend as little money as possible. And they’re in the business of making a profit, so it’s a different point of view.

DHS’s Buffer Zone Protection Program was a very good program for protecting facilities from attack during times of heightened alert. But it is frustrating when 75 to 80 percent of the critical infrastructure in the United States is privately owned. You can’t take federal funds and go on private property to enhance security. So you’re very, very limited as to what you can do.

Q. Have any recent drills or exercises produced valuable lessons?

A. The one that was eye-opening for me—which it shouldn’t have been—was our agriculture exercise involving an “all-stop,” in which all animal transport is halted. Whether it’s across the nation or just one region, such as Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, and let’s throw in Mexico, it would be incredibly difficult to do. Where do they stop? Who’s going to house the animals? There are so many different roads: federal interstates, state highways, county roads; it’s virtually impossible. We’d have people just dumping cattle on the side of the road just so they could move on. It would cause tremendous problems.  It may sound very easy to accomplish, but once you start trying to figure out how you’re going to do it, it becomes very difficult.

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

A. We’re going to continue to make noticeable progress on our strategic goals, and part of that is improving our ability to go through the grant-application process with DHS. The application process is somewhat cumbersome, I believe. We have to write “investments,” basically explanations, for all of our projects.

We have done very well in the past. The last grant period we had a peer review score of 97 percent, but we received a 42 percent cut in funds. When you spend tremendous hours preparing investment justifications and you score very, very well on them only to receive cuts, it is very disheartening. But we have to look, keep our eyes open for this upcoming year, and continue to be strong and do the right thing, and hopefully, at the end of the day, we’re able to look the people of Oklahoma in the eye and say, “We served you well.”

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