DHS set to identify 40 crucial homeland-security technologies

Although this is not the first time government security planners have asked for help — some companies are still waiting for a response after suggesting ways the country could better defend itself after the 9/11 attacks — this time will be different, insists Alfonso Martinez-Fonts, special assistant to the U.S. secretary of homeland security for the private sector.

Apr 1st, 2003

By Ben Ames

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — If your company makes electronic technology for domestic-security applications, leaders of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) need your help.

Although this is not the first time government security planners have asked for help — some companies are still waiting for a response after suggesting ways the country could better defend itself after the 9/11 attacks — this time will be different, insists Alfonso Martinez-Fonts, special assistant to the U.S. secretary of homeland security for the private sector.

By the end of March, government officials will have compiled a list of 40 technologies they need for national security and defense, and DHS planners have already budgeted $33 million to research and test the products they collect, Martinez-Fonts explained March 12 in a speech to engineers and entrepreneurs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

The 40 technologies were to be listed on the World Wide Web at http://www.bids.tswg.gov, which is the site of the Technical Support Working Group (TSWG), a multi-agency forum under supervision of the U.S. Department of State. TSWG officials will analyze the products, and DHS officials will accept foreign and domestic bids.

TSWG officials will post the 40-technology list as a broad agency announcement (BAA). Those in industry also may e-mail their ideas to the DHS at private. sector@dhs.gov, Martinez-Fonts says.

The 40 technologies will cover areas such as radiation, chemical, and bio-agent detection and decontamination systems, systems analysis tools, secure communication techniques, and training approaches, says Dr. Holly Dockery of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate.

"There will also be a request for new [or improved] technologies or emerging technological capabilities pertaining to the field of non-battlefield chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear countermeasures," she says.

"The list is based on technology and other system needs defined and prioritized by the experts in DHS," Dockery says. That includes researchers in the Science and Technology Directorate, users from the operations directorates (Borders and Transportation Security, Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection, and Emergency Preparedness and Response), as well as members of the U.S. Secret Service and Coast Guard.

Government officials say they must appeal to private business, despite all the government's resources, because 85 percent of the nation's critical infrastructure under protection of the DHS is privately owned. Infrastructure owners know their own systems, vulnerabilities, and solutions better than anyone else, so they are best positioned to defend them, officials say.

But government officials tend to overlook private-sector organizations as resources, says Martinez-Fonts, who retired last year from 30 years at JP Morgan Chase bank, most recently as chairman and chief executive officer of its El Paso, Texas, offices. One of the biggest surprises he found in Washington was the lack of any money, grants, or tax breaks for the private sector as part of homeland security efforts.

For instance, DHS Secretary Tom Ridge escalated his department's terror advisory from yellow to orange in February, but had no answers when organizers of public gathering places asked for specific advice. So Martinez-Fonts invited groups like the National Association of Theatre Owners and the International Association of Arena Managers to join a committee to collect "best practices" for improving security in public places.

Another part of his job is to find out when federal security policy stunts the growth of private business, such as companies that complain about how beefed-up security checks are slowing the flow of products across U.S. borders. He also has to reconcile the profit-driven motivations of private security solutions with the government's motivation to protect its citizens.

"I believe there is a business case for homeland security," Martinez-Fonts says. "How many of you have homeowner's insurance? Are you upset at the end of each year when your house hasn't burned down, so you don't get to collect on the policy? No, and you're glad to buy another year's protection. It's just a cost of doing business."

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