March 15, 2010
Safety and Security: Know How to Respond to Threats
Jose D. Riojas
Assistant Secretary for Operations, Security, and Preparedness
Despite the annual 9/11 remembrance activities, the continuing combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and terrorist trials making the news, it’s easy to forget the ongoing global conflict requiring our attention.
The reason it’s “ongoing,” of course, is that those who would do us harm are still committed to that goal and mount attacks on us daily. Some attacks make the news, such as the failed attempt to bring down the airliner headed to Detroit on Christmas Day, or stories of disaffected young men being lured from American cities to terrorist training camps abroad, but most do not. Thankfully, many are thwarted, without fanfare, by our military and civilian defense and intelligence activities.
There are even attacks on our Department. Yes, VA. As the second largest Cabinet-level department in the federal government, with significant resources, especially us, spread across the country and beyond, we represent “targets of opportunity” to those whose values differ from our own.
Whether real or virtual, to our physical space or cyberspace, VA is under attack. We must keep our guard up. Our safety and security, individually and collectively, depend on each of us knowing how to respond.
Within VA, we may feel cloistered from certain threats, but imagine answering the phone and hearing a bomb threat whispered in your ear. What would you say? Could you describe the voice or background? Who would you call?
Suppose you’re opening one of the dozens of envelopes that come to your work station each day and a white powdery substance spills out onto your hands and clothes? What would you do? What is the phone number to report a hazardous materials incident?
Of course, not all threats to your safety and security are manmade. Some are from nature, in the form of hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, fires, floods and other severe weather events. In these situations, your ability to respond is directly related to your level of preparedness for emergency conditions. When it comes to our VA family, each of us is only as safe as our level of preparation and that of our colleagues. So, how prepared are you? How prepared is your family or neighbor?
According to published disaster response studies, 95 percent of first responders to any emergency situation are victims or bystanders. That fact alone should motivate each of us to take more seriously our role in helping to keep our families, neighborhoods, workplaces and nation safe.
Late last year, Secretary Shinseki established the VA Safety and Security Work Group and asked me to lead the group in assessing security throughout the Department. That group is now conducting the first comprehensive security assessments, which will eventually include all VA facilities. Compliance with established federal regulations and VA policies will be a focus, but employee and veteran awareness of those rules will also be assessed.
Perhaps more important than the assessment is the ongoing education campaign to ensure all of us are aware of the threats to our mutual safety and security and know how to respond.
Over the course of the coming year, you will see a variety of announcements, posters, exercises/events and other communications with important information about the threats we all face and what we can do to prepare ourselves, our families and our colleagues to respond appropriately to minimize any harm or damage and continue our mission to serve veterans.
There is no “off season” for emergencies. Vigilance, knowledge and training are the best defense against disaster. At VA, quality care and service for veterans relies as much on the safety and security of the workplace as it does on your skill and expertise as employees.
With that in mind, Secretary Shinseki told facility directors to ensure employees, veterans and visitors at their facilities are aware of how they can help keep VA a safe place to give and receive care.
How can you help? By constantly assessing your environment for potential threats to your safety and security and then reporting anything that you perceive to be a threat to your supervisor or the nearest law enforcement official. It is about being proactive and being responsible for your own safety.
Our law enforcement officials are trained professionals but they cannot be everywhere. So they count on us to be sensors of our environment to identify potential threats. We know what looks right, sounds right, and smells right. When we detect otherwise, we must inform someone else so we can make our environment right for us as individuals and as a team.
Remember, we are all in this together—each employee, the security team at each facility, our police force, contract security personnel, veterans, volunteers and visitors alike. Our efforts will make the Department of Veterans Affairs not only one of the best places to work, but one of the safest, as well.
VAnguard March/April 2010