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Fourteen years after 9/11, are we more prepared?

Whether we're safer after 9/1 may not matter as much as whether we're more prepared.

It seems like there is more chatter this time of year about improvements to safeguarding the homeland and not enough debate about how prepared we are to recover if attacked. The 9/11 Commission Report commissioned by Congress concluded in its investigation of the attacks that our emergency response on Sept. 11, 2001 was "organized chaos," but every 9/11 anniversary we ask the same old question: "Are we safer?" So, is it just me, or do you also find that the debate on every 9/11 anniversary about "are we safer" never really advances the conversation about how prepared we are to recover from attacks?

Don't get me wrong, the conversation about whether we are safer since 9/11 is a good discussion to have. It's important for us to re-evaluate the effectiveness of security measures to protect and respond to attacks. The truth is we have had many successes — including more than 70 known thwarted terror plots aimed at the U.S since 9/11 — despite the challenges. There have also been dramatic policy changes and reorganization at the federal, state and local levels to enhance security. We can even see those security improvements in our own state, where the Port of Baltimore and the BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport won national security awards. But if we are to achieve a safer homeland with a strong homeland security enterprise that is capable of responding to the threats we face, we as citizens must become more prepared for man-made and natural disasters that compromise our safety and security.

On this 9/11 anniversary, I say enough with the debate over degrees of safety — it's time to focus on preparedness.

After 14 years of working to strengthen our security, we know that the threat still remains. In fact, we have seen the rise of various terrorists from ISIS to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to the lone wolf. So far this year, there have been at least 11 known terror plots against the U.S — the largest number in a single year since 9/11.

Yet there are those who still hope that the answer to the question "Are we safer" will someday be that we won the war on terror and we can return to life as it was prior to 9/11. But victory in the war on terror will not resemble other military feats. We are fighting against an ideology not a country. There will be no enemy waiving the white flag of surrender, no troops coming home to a victory parade and no victory dance at the finish line. We need to consider a new idea of victory, one that fits with the reality of today's conflicts.

When we acknowledge our new reality, the question then becomes, how prepared are our schools, businesses, hospitals, churches and our homes if the emergency management infrastructure is unable to reach you within three days after a disaster?

Remember last winter's massive storms that slammed into the East Coast, canceling flights in our area, closing government offices and sending school children home in Maryland? Moreover, who can forget the winter storms in places like Atlanta that left school buses and motorists trapped in gridlock without food or water? These winter crises demonstrated that cities were unprepared, schools were unprepared, businesses were unprepared, and many citizens were not as prepared as we should be. If we can't even prepare for a natural, basic occurrence such as winter weather, how prepared are we really for a major disaster?

Now is an appropriate time for families and businesses to think about an emergency plan as September is National Preparedness Month, designed to encourage citizens to focus on your part in the security of this nation. As the Maryland Emergency Management Agency puts it, "A prepared Marylander creates a resilient Maryland."

The former Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano, said it best at a Brookings Institution event, "It's not the responsibility solely of the federal government. Every single person has a responsibility in the security realm for the safety of themselves, but also of each other." We have a public responsibility to make our families, homes and communities safer from risks and threats. Major attacks can overwhelm first responders, which means a prepared citizenry and volunteers are key to building disaster resilient communities.

And that will help ensure a safer homeland.

Herma Percy is a homeland security associate professor at American Military University and a member of the Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council of Maryland and the City of Takoma Park Emergency Preparedness Committee. Her email is hpercy@mycampus.apus.edu.

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