APEX 2023: Needed Conversations in Homeland Security Had at Annual CHDS Alumni Exchange

From balancing homeland security concerns involving emerging artificial intelligence capabilities with avoiding government overreach, and dire warnings about the potential for energy needs to challenge modern civilization’s survival, to presentations on a range of topics including American patriotism, cybersecurity, leadership and collaboration, lessons learned from COVID-19, and how to handle new workforce demands. 

These were a few of the “conversations we needed to have in homeland security,” including some involving potentially “catastrophic consequences,” according to Center for Homeland Defense and Security Director Glen Woodbury, at the annual Alumni Professional Exchange (APEX) Continuing Education Workshop held Feb. 21-23 at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. 

Strategic Communications Director Heather Hollingsworth Issvoran (left) and CHDS Association President Debra Kirby (right)

The three-day event, held wholly in-person for the first time in three years since before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down our nation, drew more than 200 CHDS alumni registrants for a series of inspiring presentations from plenary sessions to alumni short talks. 

CHDS Strategic Communications Director Heather Hollingsworth Issvoran said the event underscored again the “importance of connection, which is the reason we chose to conduct APEX 2023 in person, as intimate as 200 people can be.” 

“This was a victory over COVID and the collective angst and anxiety in our society,” the APEX co-founder said. “This was a way to participate in a collaborative environment and find a way forward as leaders, a unique opportunity for government. I’ve never seen so many people connect like they did at this event, it was different this year. It’s been so long. There were younger folks and older folks together [at the event] and everyone was given the same respect. 

“The only agenda at APEX is to promote knowledge and good governance.” 

Institute for the Study of Energy and Our Future Director Dr. Nate Hagens praised the CHDS alums as remarkably and refreshingly “apolitical and hungry for knowledge.” 

APEX 2023 kicked off on Tuesday, Feb. 21, with remarks by CHDS Association President Debra Kirby, who will be stepping down from the association helm after three years with elections set for this summer, and Hollingsworth Issvoran, who called out those CHDS alumni from educational program cohorts celebrating their 10-year, 15-year, and 20-year anniversaries. Kirby said the dedication of CHDS alumni to remain engaged with the nation’s preeminent homeland security institution after so many years is the “real strength of our group,” and encouraged alumni to network with others because “that helps us grow.” 

NPS President Admiral Ann Rondeau, U.S. Navy (Ret.)

Following a rousing rendition of the national anthem by CHDS Logistics Coordinator Velvet Piini, Woodbury offered welcoming remarks by hearkening back to the previous in-person APEX in February 2020, when he noted that people flew in from all over the country and met together in an enclosed space before the nation “closed down” two weeks later. “Correlation,” he said, “not causation.” 

NPS President Admiral Ann Rondeau, U.S. Navy (Ret.) provided opening remarks, praising CHDS as one of the best institutions at NPS, noting the CHDS alumni’s “intimacy to the communities you serve,” and stressing the importance of learning “discernment and leadership.” 

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Deputy Administrator Erik Hooks delivered the keynote address, noting his agency’s 20-year partnership with CHDS and the institution’s success in developing policies that had “helped save lives.” 

Hooks stressed the importance of collaboration on a range of issues from equity, climate change, and preparation for everything from natural disasters and international threats to workforce burnout. 

FEMA Deputy Administrator Erik Hooks

“It’s a blessing to be able to serve,” Hooks said. “We should never forget the heart of what we do is the people. Never underestimate the power of your leadership.” 

During a lively question-and-answer session, Hooks engaged with the assemblage on a range of topics from FEMA’s lessons learned during COVID-19, the use of advanced technology to address availability and threats to resources such as water and food, and FEMA’s role in mass shootings, among others. 

The first plenary session from Day 1 was entitled, “American Patriotism Today,” and featured a panel led by FEMA Office of the Chief Security Officer Field Security Division Director Dan O’Connor, along with OTH Solutions Executive Vice President Nabeela Barbari and former U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steve Sund, who led his police force during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. 

O’Connor started the conversation by noting that “patriotism is a pejorative in the U.S.” these days, and that a recent survey had found that only 16 percent of Generation Z was proud to be an American and noted that national pride had been steadily declining through previous generations. He said he believed the U.S. was facing an “existential threat” as a result of people debating who is truly patriotic, and he wanted the panel to share “different perspectives” on the topic. 

Top: Steve Sund, Nabeela Barabri, and Dan O’Connor
Bottom: Bob Wagner

Barbari, who called herself a second generation Palestinian-American, said she is a “lifelong learner about patriotism” who grew up “privileged” until 9/11, when she said it didn’t matter whether she was Palestinian and Christian because she was going to face discrimination including government-sanctioned at the airport. “I don’t disagree with patriotism and nationalism,” she said. “I disagree with who is allowed to be nationalist and patriotic.” 

Sund said his sense of patriotism was formed by being from a military family. He remembered being asked to come to the White House after 9/11 to help plan the nation’s response and passing bridge after bridge with the American flag flying. But Sund said that sense of unity has been challenged by hyper-political rhetoric from all sides and social media constantly ruminating on how bad America is. “We were the United States of America,” he said, “and now we’re the Divided States of America.” 

The panel went on to discuss a range of related topics including the U.S. being a “unique experiment [in multiculturalism] that had stood the test of time” but was now “under duress,” the country’s history of discrimination against certain peoples, disparate treatment of protesters, civil rights and threats to them, assimilation, hyphenated Americans, differences and divisions within U.S. regions, obsessive self-criticism, obligation to national society, a decline in military eligibility among the younger generation, unique opportunity in the U.S. that doesn’t exist elsewhere, and a decline in respect for law enforcement, among others. 

Two Alumni Short Talks on New Ideas in Homeland Security followed during the afternoon, including:  

  • Octant Associates Senior WMD Subject Matter Expert Robert “Bob” Wagner with a presentation entitled “Nuclear Threat and Strategic Competition.” Wagner argued the U.S. “has a problem” with increasing nuclear threats from Russia as Vladimir Putin pulls back from the last remaining nuclear arms treaty as the Russian invasion of Ukraine drags on, along with other nations including China, Iran, and North Korea, and pointed out that the famed “Doomsday Clock” is set at 90 seconds to midnight or Armageddon. But he argued the concern is the threat remains an “elephant in the room,” and called for homeland security officials to take the lead on preparing the nation for a potential nuclear attack. “I think it’s our responsibility as homeland security professionals to do something,” he said. “This is truly a whole of society threat issue.” 
  • Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Deputy Director Nitin Natarajan with a presentation entitled “Microvisibility: New Ideas in Leadership.” Natarajan argued for a leadership approach that requires diving into the details of an organization enough to allow top management to speak on all facets of an organization but without micromanaging, allowing middle managers to “fail” and learn from the experience without sinking the organization itself.

Day 2 of APEX 2023 began with a presentation from Hollingsworth Issvoran and CHDS Digital Content Manager Emily Bruza on the launch of ProPages, a new, “cutting edge” online site that allows CHDS alumni, faculty, subject matter experts, and staff to set up an individualized page that curates their professional narrative. Hollingsworth Issvoran called the new service the “so what” of the education of CHDS alumni. “This is where practitioners can highlight their academics, experience, and their projects,” she said. “ProPages is where the homeland security community can see the way our graduates implement what they have learned. This is good government in action.”

CISA Deputy Director Nitin Natarajan (right) accepting the CHDS Alumni Service Award from CHDS Director Glen Woodbury (left)

Then came the presentation of the second annual CHDS Alumni Service Award by Kirby, who said this year’s nominations were double last year’s and presented a “very tough choice,” while lauding the winner as a “Renaissance” person who had worked across different fields and entities, including local, state, federal agencies, as well as the private industry, and providing mentorship and leadership. 

The winner: Natarajan, who said he was surprised by the honor and told the assembled alumni that “what makes us unique is all of you,” adding that the CHDS “group of alumni is different than any other educational organization, and that makes this mean even more.” 

The morning’s plenary session was entitled “Smart Practices in Interagency Regional Coordination and Collaboration,” and featured a panel led by CISA Executive Officer Beth Windisch, including Illinois Emergency Management Agency Director Brig. Gen. Alicia Tate-Nadeau and Cook County Department of Emergency Management and Regional Security Executive Director Ted Berger. 

From left: Brig. Gen. Alicia Tate-Nadeau, Beth Windisch, and Ted Berger

Windisch said homeland security challenges “don’t live in silos” and “effective collaboration means listening to all voices in the community, not just those you know.” Tate-Nadeau said it was “pretty crucial” for people to be “focused on unity of mission” so the entire team can pull in the same direction and a “spirit of generosity” and “no ego, no blame” that seeks “win-win” outcomes. Berger said leaders must “meet communities where they are and navigate eco-systems” among partners to be successful. 

For the morning’s Alumni Short Talk, former Washington DC 9-11 and 3-11 Director Karima Holmes presented on “Next Generation 9-11,” during which she called for an “overhaul” of the emergency phone number system “from landline to the digital age” to include capabilities such as videos, texts, call sharing, and the like. Holmes said modernization is already underway but “very slowly and piecemeal,” and is largely dependent on available resources. She said a national upgrade would cost about $12-$15 billion and requires a funding source, noting two bills working their way through Congress, as well as federal-level coordination. 

Former Washington DC 9-11 and 3-11 Director Karima Holmes

After a lunchtime break that included a presentation from Microsoft National Security and Emerging Technology Senior Director Rob Blair on the new Bing with ChatGPT, the afternoon plenary session entitled “Open Artificial Intelligence: Emerging Technologies and Threats” featured CHDS National Security Affairs Department, NPS Research Prof. Rodrigo Nieto-Gomez and Blair in a combined session. 

Nieto-Gomez spoke about “a lot of fear coming out [about artificial intelligence] due to not understanding it,” “technophobia,” and “media puritanism,” and pointed out that AI can’t do anything on its own because humans are responsible for all input. The “good news,” he said, is “we already have the solution”—a rating system that warns users about the technology. 

At the same time, Nieto-Gomez asked whether the government should be allowed to dictate AI usage restrictions, and warned against policies that would restrict development of the technology to the point that it would hamper the U.S. in global power competition. 

CHDS Prof. Rodrigo Nieto-Gomez (left) and Microsoft National Security and Emerging Technology Senior Director Rob Blair (right)

Blair followed with an overview of Microsoft’s approach to handling AI in a responsible way, arguing that the technology is at an “inflection point.” He said AI is “rolling out quickly” and “societal expectations are evolving,” and the “possibilities are really nearly endless,” while potential malicious use of the technology for deep fakes, auto coding of viruses and the like, and misinformation is also a reality, so there needs to be an effort to establish responsible use guidelines. 

During the afternoon plenary session entitled “The Great Simplification: What Homeland Security Leaders Need to Know About the Future of Energy,” Institute for the Study of Energy and Our Future Director Dr. Nate Hagens argued that humans are living well beyond their means in both energy consumption and debt while engaging in what he called “energy blind” policies that ignore the cost of pollution. Hagens said the U.S. and the globe are “not running out of oil, but running out of cheap oil,” and are “having to run faster and faster to maintain the status quo.” He said the “oil blinders” are being “ripped off” due to energy shortages in places like Europe but “renewable energy” is a “misnomer” because while sources such as electricity, solar, and wind might be renewable, the collection tools are not and will require major, energy-intensive mining. Meanwhile, he said the U.S. and other nations continue to add debt in pursuit of continual growth, which he said is unsustainable. 

Hagens compared humans to a “super organism [akin to a blind amoeba] with oil as the hemoglobin” living off a finite resource that eventually will be too costly for increasing debt to cover, and noted the lack of leadership to address the problem. 

Institute for the Study of Energy and Our Future Director Dr. Nate Hagens

If humankind doesn’t reduce its ever-increasing quest for gross domestic product growth and shift toward lower productivity and lower energy and resource costs and consumption, Hagens predicted a global financial collapse, and called for homeland security leaders such as CHDS alums to help prepare for such a future. 

Later, after the APEX 2023 Networking Reception in the evening, Hagens praised the CHDS alums as remarkably and refreshingly “apolitical and hungry for knowledge.” 

Capping off the end of Day 2, CHDS alum Wagner was administered the oath by Rondeau as a Commissioned U.S. Naval Intelligence Officer. 

Day 3 started with a remembrance of those CHDS alums who had passed away during the previous year and a moment of silence for those who were lost:

Stan Heath
Chief Planner, Office of Public Affairs, DHS, ELP 1002 
Kenneth Elerbe
Former Chief of DC Fire and EMS, ELP 1202
Dr. Ann M. Garvey
State Public Health Veterinarian, State of Iowa, MA 403/404 
Louis Bruhnke
Chief Deputy Director, California EMS Authority, MA 1104/1105 
Adam Taft
Staff Captain, Palm Beach County, FL, Fire Rescue, MA 2203/2204

Caleb Cage (above) and Elvis Chan (below)

Then came the presentation of the first Christopher Bellavita Award to Nevada System of Higher Education Vice Chancellor for Workforce Development and Chief Innovation Officer Caleb Cage, who accepted the award with his daughter Charlotte and said the award was a “huge surprise and great honor,” noting he had been an “acolyte” of Bellavita’s since attending a presentation by him at a fusion session in Nevada, and adding that it was “great to be part of the APEX community.” 

Cage led the morning plenary session in a presentation entitled “Five Crises: COVID-19 and the Necessity of Resilience.” Having been recalled to the Nevada Governor’s Office to lead the state’s COVID-19 response early in the pandemic, he spoke about what was learned during that period including emergency measures and the loss of revenue as a result of pandemic shutdowns including the state’s cash cow, the Las Vegas strip. The five crises the state faced included public health, economic, fiscal, social/political, and legal, and Cage said emergency managers have learned to employ both a risk and a resilience approach. 

Later in the morning, FBI Assistant Agent in Charge, San Francisco Office, Elvis Chan presented an Alumni Short Talk entitled “Cyber Armageddon: Not Yet,” in which he admitted he and others were wrong when they predicted the Russian invasion of Ukraine would result in more “asymmetric warfare and blowback” aimed at the U.S. through cyber attacks by now. Chan said he believes that’s because of U.S. efforts to combat cyber attacks, including Operation Cyclops Blink targeting malware that successfully found and deleted malware from compromised digital devices. At the same time, Chan said there could be increased cyber attacks on the U.S. depending on how Russia and Ukraine fare on the battlefield, and he recommended setting up offline backup systems for all cyber systems. 

Mikaela Ellenwood (left) and Scott Fenton (right)

Finally, FEMA National IMAT White Mass Care Branch Director Mikaela Ellenwood and FEMA Region 9 Operations Branch Director Scott Fenton presented an Alumni Short Talk entitled “Viewing Recruitment and Retention Through a New Lens,” in which the duo argued the new generation workforce has higher job mobility and more options, and is far less interested in a 30-year career in government. That, they said, is not likely to change and there is almost certainly no going back to pre-pandemic working conditions. 

Wrapping up the event, Woodbury provided a CHDS update, laying out a “transition” underway at the institution including redesigned curriculum, website, and digital library, and added self-study courses, as well as changes in the CHDS budget, audience or participants, educational delivery, and homeland security informed by a 2023 educational priorities survey of homeland security leaders. 

“What’s our role now as a government-funded institution?” Woodbury asked. “I would argue we should try new things, innovate.” 

Browse photos from APEX2023

INQUIRIES: Heather Hollingsworth Issvoran, Communications and Recruitment | hissvora@nps.edu, 831-402-4672 (PST)

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