An interview with Dennis Storemski, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security for the City of Houston.
Dennis Storemski is the director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security for the City of Houston. His responsibilities include homeland security, emergency management, and supervision of the the Houston Emergency Communications Center. Prior to accepting his current position in 2005, he served 38 years with the Houston Police Department, achieving the rank of Executive Assistant Chief. His department assignments included patrol, investigations, tactical operations, and support coordination. As a member of the department’s command staff, Storemski was instrumental in the development of the Special Response Group, Mounted Patrol Detail, and the expansion of the SWAT and Hostage Negotiation teams. He also developed the department’s emergency mobilization plan, instituted training on weapons of mass destruction and involved the department in the regional Joint Terrorism Task Force. He also coordinated security operations for major events including the 1992 Republic National Convention, the 1990 Economic Summit of Industrial Nations (G-8), the 1998 World Energy Congress and Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. Storemski is a life member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, serving on its Committee on Terrorism. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Houston, and is a graduate of the FBI’s National Executive Institute.
Q. What are your office’s responsibilities?
A. The responsibilities of my office are essentially to coordinate the city’s homeland security activities with its federal, state, and local partners. I also coordinate homeland security issues among our various city departments. I also manage the funds for the city of Houston and all its departments provided through the federal Homeland Security Grant Program’s (HSGP). But some of my other responsibilities include emergency management, our Houston Emergency Center Center, which is our 9-11 call center, and it’s the location for our police fire and EMS dispatching; then I have a group called our mayor’s Anti-Gang Office, and a couple of other public safety-related operations.
Q. What assets and threats make your region unique?
A. Well first of all you probably know that the Houston is one of the six tier-one cities so designated by the Department of Homeland Security, and that primarily has to do with our number of critical assets within the Houston region, Houston is rich with critical infrastructure assets so by its nature you have to consider it a homeland security risk. Those would include our large petrochemical industry, the Port of Houston, our two major airports and other transportation systems, our Texas Medical Center for instance our central business district, and some of the other large commercial complexes that house some of the nation’s largest corporations. We have a number of commercial and retail centers like the Galleria and other large areas. Our many entertainment and sports complexes, our theater district, our basketball, baseball stadiums, our convention center—all of those create a risk of potential attack, either because of the economic impact it might have on the country or just they’re placed where there are large venues for people which are also target-rich for terrorists.
And there’s certainly the persistent risk of weather related disasters. Obviously we deal with the whole hurricane threat and other weather threats, flooding-related not necessarily to hurricanes, and also being a large petrochemical venue you always have to be concerned about the risk of accidental releases of harmful chemicals one of those places might have a natural-type disaster.
Q. What is the region’s homeland security governance structure?
A. The UASI through DHS is a funding mechanism that really addresses regional issues, and so since 9-11 in 2001, sometime after that the Department of Homeland Security created the homeland Security Grant Program and the UASI grant program, and the intent and focus of that was to start addressing homeland security from a regional perspective. So our UASI region consists of the City of Houston, Harris County, Montgomery County, and Fort Bend county as well as Besoria and Galveston counties. So our governance structure is, starting from the top we have an Executive Committee which I chair that has a representative from the City of Houston, Fort Bend, Montgomery, and Harris County. Then in this is sort of the top of the governance structure that makes the final decisions on funding allocations and other issues.
But also within our organizational structure we have a working group that consists of members from a number of different working group committees, for example we have a regional collaboration committee, an interoperability committee, law enforcement, fire, health and medical, infrastructure protection, citizen preparedness. Each of those are committees that have representatives from different jurisdictions in the region, and so the chairs of those committees make up our working group. So we process things through committees, through the working group, up to the Executive Committee to make decisions about how funds are disbursed. And not only dealing with the funding but also dealing with our strategic plan for the region.
Q. What is the biggest challenge of your mission?
A. I think our biggest challenge has to do with prioritizing where we direct our limited funding and our limited resources. There’s never going to be sufficient resources to protect every potential resources, so obviously you have to prioritize your risk. DHS has a formula for determining risk, it’s essentially risk = threat x vulnerability x consequence. It’s that threat portion of the formula that is obviously the most difficult to determine because it relies heavily on information that you may or may not have, simply because it doesn’t exist. So trying to determine what the threat is, and trying to prioritize risk using those variables is the biggest challenge.
Q. How does the region assess risk comparatively between jurisdictions and sectors?
A. We use some computer programs. We have program called Digital Sandbox that allows us to input data and it uses various risk-based formulas to help us, in as sense, take a look at it from a statistical standpoint of what our risks may be, but at the end of the day there needs to be judgment in how you direct your resources.
Q. What has been one of the Houston region’s greatest successes since 9-11?
I guess in a general sense I would say that we’re much better prepared since Sept. 11, 2001 in terms of prevention, protection, response and recovery capability. Our collaboration between agencies and among different jurisdictions and even with the private sector is much more robust than it was prior to that. We have enhanced security for the Port of Houston, the Houston Ship Channel, we’ve had a number of grant-funded initiatives that through those grant-funding initiatives we’ve been able to improve our information sharing, for instance we stood up a fusion center out at our Houston Emergency Center that, although led by the Houston Police Department, it involves just about every jurisdiction in the region and different agencies—federal, state, local. We were able to funs a program using a product called WebEOC, where during emergencies we can share information from the various emergency operations centers using this Web-based product. We have greatly improved, or are in the process of improving our radio communications interoperability. The City of Houston itself is spending somewhere around $110 million to build out a new radio system that will create interoperability with the other ten counties that surround the City of Houston that will enhance response capabilities and just interoperable communications. Plus, we’ve spent I think we’ve spent our grant funds very judiciously. We’ve bought response equipment, we’re going some public safety video projects in some areas where we have critical infrastructure and high crime. So just in general training and for our first responders, plus we’ve been very aggressive in citizen preparedness. We’ve worked through the ready.gov
program and we’ve created some DVDs and some other information to help the citizens be better prepared for all types of emergencies.
Q. Is fiscal sustainability a challenge? If so, how is the region addressing the problem?
A. Speaking for the City of Houston, no not really, and probably the same can be said for the other jurisdictions because first of all, when you accept the grant money, you have to agree to sustain the programs that you’re doing. So as our Executive Committee looks over grant requests, we look at the sustainability of the program. If jurisdictions are asking for things that they can’t sustain, then we don’t fund them. So our radio system is good example. The city was already committed to invest in the system, and we understand that we’ve got to sustain that system. So no, it really has not been a problem. We have used the federal funding as start-up, seed-money, if you will, knowing full well that we have to sustain the programs.
Q. How would you characterize your office’s relationship with its federal partners? What would you change about it, if anything?
A. We have an excellent relationship with our federal partners, both in terms of the Department of Homeland Security, but also we’ve always had a good relationship with federal agencies that have a local presence: the FBI, the Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); we’ve always maintained those relationships. My background has been in law enforcement and through all my career we’ve always, in the Houston Police Department, sustained a good working relationship. And we’ve carried that forward now in this whole arena of homeland security and preparedness to make sure we have those relationships.
Probably one of the improvements I would like to see is more direct relationship with FEMA during disasters. The way the process works during hurricanes, for instance, all requests for federal assistance has to be channeled through the state. And although FEMA, during our last hurricane, Hurricane Ike, had FEMA representatives on the ground and in our EOCs and helped process requests, but at the end of the day they were still hamstrung by having to make those formal requests through the state and through that formal bureaucratic process. So in some sense, operationally, I’d like to see a little less bureaucracy, but that’s not to say that the current system isn’t working well.
Q. Does your office work with the private sector? If so, how?
A. We have been pretty aggressive in trying to work with the private sector in the business community, and for the most part we have been doing it though various organizations like ASIS International, like the Energy Security Council, there’s a group here around our Ship Channel called the East Harris County Manufacturing Association, or EHCMA. We work through the Area Maritime Security Committee out at the port, there are other organizations like Central Houston and the Downtown Management District at Texas Medical Center, and directly with some of the utility companies so we’ve been very aggressive in trying to coordinate our activities with the private sector because frankly, as you know, something like 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure is in the hands of the private sector. So if we’re going to protect this nation’s critical assets we’re going to have to do that by coordinating with the private sector.
Q. Have any recent incidents or exercises produced valuable lessons?
A. Every time you go through a disaster or an exercise you always find areas that need to be improved. There’s always lessons to be learned. But I guess a good example of things that we’ve learned over the past two incidents involving hurricanes was the evacuation process. Everybody knows about the gridlock we had in traffic during Hurricane Rita in 2005, and we’ve done a lot of work in that regard in terms of not only improving traffic flow to the extent we can, but we’ve also worked in better coordination in trying to better inform the public about which areas need to evacuate, or which areas are mandatory. A good example of that would be during Rita, we talked about the areas that were the mandatory evacuation zones, but we learned that the maps that sometimes we produced weren’t clear enough for people to really understand whether or not they were in those zones. So one of the simple things we’ve done is make sure that we’ve identified those mandatory evacuation zones by zip code. Everybody knows what their zip code is, so we try to advise people who are most at risk that way.
We’re also in the process of trying to provide more information to the general public so that they can make their own decision about whether they need to evacuate or not, because we know that during Hurricane Rita, when we had the gridlock, there were a lot of people who evacuated who probably didn’t need to in terms of risk. So what we want to do is not make that decision for people, but provide them with information so that they can make their own educated decision about whether or not they should leave.
And then I guess in general I would say a lesson learned is that we need to continually coordinate activities among jurisdictions. We need to be talking to one another before major decisions are made.
Q. What are your office’s major goals for the coming year?
A. Obviously we need to continue to focus on prevention and protection activities. As we move further away from Sept. 11, 2001, I think the whole natural memory of what our threat situation is seems to dissipate a little bit. So you have to continually remind people who are responsible for some of our critical infrastructure that the risk is still there. So we continue to focus on prevention and protection. We’d rather prevent and protect rather than respond. That involved information sharing and analysis, so we’re going to continue to focus on our fusion center and information sharing and continuing to complete our radio system that will establish interoperability, and continue work on citizen preparedness and just general security for our port and other critical infrastructures.
Q. How has your background influenced your approach to your position?
A. Well I spent 38 years in the Houston Police Department, retired there as an executive assistant chief, and took this job in the mayor’s office in January 2005. In the police department I was responsible for, well I worked in just about every area there was in the police department, but I dealt my last several years I dealt with homeland security issues and terrorism and was responsible for handling major events like the Super Bowl and the Republican Convention and those sorts of things. So this was a natural fit to move into this area.