DHS S&T OpEx workers monitor computer screens in February 2016. (DHS photo)

PERSPECTIVE: A Great Team of Prospects at DHS Centers of Excellence Summit

Few things in life are an “overnight success,” which is why the phrase “good things come to those who wait” probably resonates with so many. If that is any indication, we are starting to see some truly “GREAT” things coming out of DHS Science & Technology’s Centers of Excellence (COE) program.

A lot of those great things were showcased at the George Mason University-hosted Centers of Excellence Summit last week, which brought together a cadre of students, researchers and university leaders to share some of their most notable works with DHS components and some of their most senior leaders. Amid the research posters and exhibit booths on each of the current and “emeritus” centers, it was also easy to see this gathering was not just an academic exercise in “show and tell.” Rather, it was more like, “Here’s what we’ve been doing and here’s what we’re doing next.”

And that was probably the biggest of takeaways because the people for which they (the COEs) are doing things are the very real-world operators of the homeland security landscape. Throughout the summit crowd you had FEMA leaders, CBP and USCG officers, HSI investigators, NPPD Cyber executives, and more all engaging in more than just face time with one another. Rather, they were actively sharing findings on recent projects while discussing operational areas that they would like to research and tackle next. It was in many respects the fulfillment of the vision that the COE program had set out when it started 14 years ago. Unlike the other legacy components that came together to form DHS, the Science & Technology (S&T) Directorate truly started from nothing. That meant anything they did had to start from scratch and that includes their COE program.

But every “great” thing starts with a vision. In the case of the DHS COE program it was working with a core group of academic institutions in key focus areas to conduct mission-centric research to provide insight, benefit and value to the components and practitioners of homeland security. If that wasn’t a tough enough metric to achieve, these same institutions were also tasked with helping build the next generation of talent to serve those complex homeland missions.

Those are tough metrics for any group to achieve – especially in finger-pointing environments where appropriators, authorizers, OMB examiners and more are always asking, “What have you done for me lately?” What was apparent during the COE Summit was that the investments in the COE vision are ripening fruits yielding meaningful work, impressive relationships and real performance metrics that are worthy of greater attention.

While each of the Centers were recognized for their respective works, it was the Coastal Resilience Center (CRC), headquartered out of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, that got some of the most notable of public shout-outs. Of note was their modeling work in what they called Advanced Circulation (ADCIRC). This entailed CRC researchers taking data from multiple sources to examine coastal storm surge, as well as other weather, flooding and wind models to help their research partner – the U.S. Coast Guard – decide where to best position their rescue crafts and personnel as hurricanes Irma and Maria came ashore last year. The end result was CRC’s ADCIRC enabling Coast Guard leaders to make a more informed decision to move their people and equipment to safer storm locations, thereby allowing them to be better able to respond to the region’s critical needs after the storms passed. That type of informed decision-making does more than save time and expensive equipment from ruin. It saves lives.

In the Summit’s closing remarks, Acting Under Secretary for Science & Technology Bill Bryan shared that the commander of the USCG’s 7th District, Rear Admiral Peter Brown, has declared, “I won’t show up to hurricane season without [ADCIRC].”

Shout-outs like that one coming from one of the world’s most experienced hurricane season operators are equivalent to newly minted Super Bowl MVPs walking off the football field declaring “I’m going to Disney World!” You can’t do better than that!

But as CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan shared in his keynote remarks, “There’s a lot of opportunity here.” And he was serious about that declaration as he went on to say he wanted every DHS Center of Excellence engaged with CBP in its various mission spaces. McAleenan had had enough experiences with the first COE – the University of Southern California’s CREATE – as well as others to know the return on investment that they could bring not just to the leadership levels at headquarters and elsewhere but to the real operating fields of CBP, where the real work of his organization is done.

McAleenan, FEMA’s Dan Kaniewski, NPPD’s Chris Krebs, ICE’s Matthew Allen, TSA’s Darby LaJoye and other DHS leaders who joined the summit program were all candid and in some cases brutally honest with their current and emerging needs that they wanted the COEs to address. As badly as each of them wanted to add newly skilled and technically versed workers to help them fulfill their respective mission assignments, they wanted the COEs to give them new and real-world insights and applications for blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, cyber security, more resilient structures, risk assessments, and refined data and analytic tools that can quickly deployed.

Their “wants” were was as much a dynamic “wish list” as they were a daunting roster of the emerging threats that lie ahead. But that’s the mission space of homeland security. It is a never-static environment that is always changing – just like the risks, threats and hazards that they must mitigate against and respond to when they occur.

Fortunately for DHS and the greater homeland security community, the COEs are rooted in a vision that allows them to grow in adaptive ways. That also makes them always ready to serve when called upon.

And as every good baseball team knows, you can’t be successful without a good farm team of prospects and coaches skilled at shaping talent so they can handle anything that is thrown at them. Which is why after the COE Summit I feel even more confident about the future of homeland security. S&T has built an impressive farm team system and that’s great for all of us in the homeland.

 

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is a Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute; a Senior Policy Principal for Homeland Security and Justice at SAS Federal and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. He has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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