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Thursday, October 6, 2022

PERSPECTIVE: SAFETY Act Team Gets Long-Overdue Awards-Season Recognition

The close of any year gives us time to reflect on the people and actions that have changed things. Which is why in reviewing the recent list of DHS Secretary’s Awards winners, I saw some people finally getting some overdue recognitions that had me saying, “Finally!” In this case I’m talking about the S&T Directorate’s SAFETY Act Team.

Now don’t get me wrong. All of the awardees recognized by Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and her leadership team were more than deserving and honorable. In fact, I know without a doubt that there are a lot more people in the department who are overdue for some public applause and attention for their good works and service, too. But when it comes to the SAFETY Act, the thought of public applause and public recognition by the department’s leadership would seem as remote as a snowball in hell. But that’s what has happened. I should know, having been a part of the early team at DHS that first worked with DHS S&T to make the SAFETY Act work.

For those unfamiliar, the SAFETY Act stands for “Supporting Anti-Terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies,” and it provides limited liability protection to the companies, organizations and developers of such technologies that effectively detect, deter, prevent and/or mitigate acts of terrorism. Through a more than rigorous application process, applicants submit an array of pertinent information and details that explain the operations and effectiveness of their offering and why it should be given such liability protections.

The start of the SAFETY Act, like much of the early days of DHS, was a challenge. Taking root in an entirely new component (the Science & Technology Directorate), in a newly cobbled together cabinet department, made finding its footing, flow and operations a chore to say the least. While DHS headquarters and S&T leaders were certainly proud to have such a unique tool to give technology developers the liability protections that they deserved for trying to put forward the best available tools to mitigate against terrorism, no one had a full understanding or appreciation of how the SAFETY Act’s Designations and Certifications should be administered, operated or awarded.

From 2003-04, only two SAFETY Act awards were given, and no one was happy with where the program was going. Frustration was extremely high among many parties, notably the Congress and the private sector, but with changes to the program’s mechanics, operations, and application, things started to get better. In fact, by 2005 this small and very unique office within S&T delivered just over 40 SAFETY Act awards. (For a full listing of SAFETY Act awarded technologies and their submitters go to  https://www.safetyact.gov/lit/at/aa)

Critics of the effort to give technology providers limited liability protection will often say this is just for the “BIG GUYS,” the mega-companies, the large-scale systems integrators so as to protect them from the trial lawyers and litigious types who are always out to make a buck some way or another. But the truth is, the SAFETY Act is as much for the “little guys” as it is the big guys. Protecting any company’s or inventor’s assets and investments from ruin is just as important as their technology being used to protect the public from prospective terrorist acts.

Each and every company and inventor making an application to the SAFETY Act office is putting forth their best, vetted efforts to protect their technology users from terrorist harm. In turn, offering those companies and inventors (and their shareholders) protection from the destruction and costs that come from trial lawyers and lawsuits after a terror incident occurs gives them plenty of incentive to continue to be inventive and pursue further deployments of technologies to address evolving terror threats. Without such incentives and protections, these companies and inventors would have little reason or incentive to put their names, reputations or assets on the line.

Which is why this very unique office in DHS S&T is so important to the success of the entire homeland security enterprise. Technology by definition and fact is never static. It is always evolving and changing. All you have to do is hold your smartphone in your hand to realize that. The SAFETY Act Office has had to learn to push the envelope (and definition) of technology more than its share of times. A cursory read of what they approved for protection in 2004 (e.g., Northrop Grumman Security Services’ Biological Detection System (BDS) and Lockheed Martin Corporation’s Risk Assessment Platform) to what they just approved (e.g., the renewal of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s LaGuardia Airport Security Program and Phoenix International’s MagnumSpike! Tire Deflation System) will show the diversity and capabilities that the technology environment offers.

Today more than a thousand different SAFETY Act protections have been approved for use by DHS S&T. That’s a thousand different tools that we did not have available to us before this entire homeland security era started nearly two decades ago. Our challenge in this environment is for the public, private and research sectors, along with DHS S&T and others, to keep being inventive knowing we have enemies both foreign and domestic who are looking to be just as creative and destructive in bringing terrorism to any community it can. In fact, the SAFETY Act is probably one of the most effective examples of public-private partnerships in effect. Government nor the private sector can be expected to have all the terrorism mitigation solutions. It requires creativity, investment, collaboration and more to prevent terrorist attacks on our infrastructures, communities and populations, and that comes from public -private partnerships.

The SAFETY Act Team is an essential part of our homeland arsenal and their work makes a tremendous difference every day. Their work also makes sure we have the partners who not only want to help protect us, but will look to protect them from the litigious harm that could doom them and anyone like them who wants to offer solutions to constantly evolving and systemic threats.

That’s a shared relationship that generates success and saves lives. It’s also work that is essential and it’s great to see it recognized as such.

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
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 Vice President for Strategic Communications & Outreach for the Space Foundation and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. Cooper is also a former Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute and has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, SAS and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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