APEX Goes Virtual to Discuss New Ideas in Homeland Security

Behind the scenes of the hybrid broadcast

Last week, the Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS) hosted the 17th annual Alumni Professional Exchange–Continuing Education Workshop (APEX). APEX provides CHDS alumni an opportunity to explore critical homeland security issues from different perspectives and share information across local, state, federal, tribal, territorial, and private sectors. The event is traditionally held at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, CA, but this year’s APEX shifted to a hybrid delivery format due to travel restrictions and COVID-19. CHDS staff established a base of operations at NPS, complete with stage, to broadcast live presentations to participants attending via Zoom. CHDS Director Glen Woodbury noted, “The majority of speakers were presenting remotely through the Zoom platform—which is basically the modus operandi these days, but the hybrid component added a new twist that made this year’s APEX unique. It’s also a reflection of the innovative solutions that are borne from collaboration within the Center.” This year CHDS is hosting two APEX events, so if you missed out on the Virtual version, you can still register for the In-person version on June 22-24 at NPS. Some of the hybrid elements from last week’s Virtual APEX will be incorporated into the June event, as well.

The concept of Alumni Short Talks was developed at last year’s APEX and due to positive feedback they were integrated into this year’s Virtual event. The idea is similar to a Ted Talk format—each of the Alumni Short Talks focused on a novel idea, perspective, or approach to homeland security within a 20-minute presentation, followed by a Q&A session with the audience. The first two days included six Alumni Short Talks on topics ranging from public health to disinformation campaigns to law enforcement approaches at mass gatherings. CHDS also decided to introduce a new presentation format called Pecha Kuchas on day three. It is an emerging presentation format that utilizes 20 slides for 20 seconds each and allows the presenter to quickly and concisely share their ideas with a wide audience. There were about 300 attendees from 38 different states, representing over 200 agencies in the homeland security enterprise.

Before the speakers “took the stage” each day, Woodbury and CHDS Strategic Communications Director Heather Issvoran provided welcoming remarks while setting the stage for one of the most unique and impactful APEX conferences to date. The first presentation was conducted by Chad Houck, Chief Deputy Secretary of State in Boise, Idaho. Houck is currently enrolled in the CHDS Master’s Degree Program (MA 2001/2002), scheduled to graduate in September 2021. He briefed the group on election security in his Alumni Short Talk titled “Military Lessons: Real-time Situational Intelligence for Election Administrators.” Houck is in his sixth year at the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office and he currently oversees the Elections, IT, and Corporate Divisions. He has served on the Idaho Governor’s Cybersecurity Task Force and has assisted in the development and execution of virtual and in-person elections cybersecurity tabletop training exercises (TTX) in partnership with both state and federal agency collaborators. To illustrate the parallels between election security and a military operating environment, Houck described a series of events from an actual response to a cyber threat during the Presidential election last November. In his presentation, he discussed some of the challenges they face and plans to improve security in the future by implementing lessons learned from the November incident and a multi-agency exercise. For other states looking to conduct similar exercises, he recommends utilizing an emergency dashboard type of approach to consolidate information before performing any tests. “Get the lines of communication open early and really engage your stakeholders because when you share what you do and what you’re facing, those counterparts may have ideas or resources to help solve these problems.”

In the next Alumni Short Talk, Katelin Wright tackled the topic of climate migration in “An Uncertain Threat: Climate Migration to the United States.” Wright is a Senior Immigration Services Officer at Department of Homeland Security (DHS) U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) in Albuquerque, NM, and an alumna of the CHDS Master’s Degree Program (MA 1901/1902). Wright completed the program in 2020 and the research for her thesis “Perfect Storm: Climate-Induced Migration to the United States” established the foundation for her Alumni Short Talk. She introduced the topic of climate migration and identified some of the challenges associated with it. Climate migration is defined by groups of people who are forced to move due to the effects of climate-driven events, such as sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity. While it is usually spurred by weather-related phenomena, climate migration is also the result of political, economic, and social change. As migration patterns change, so does the link between climate change and public health. She applied the STEEP (Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, Political) model to show how external factors can lead to a trend. Wright suggests “Like many other agencies, DHS needs to account for climate change when developing future policies. The Department of Defense has already made plans and they’re ahead of the curve.”

Eric Saylors, Battalion Chief at the Sacramento Fire Department

The final Alumni Short Talk of day one was conducted by CHDS master’s graduate Eric Saylors (MA 1403/1404). Saylors is a Battalion Chief at the Sacramento Fire Department in Northern California. Saylors was able to drive to Monterey to deliver his presentation from the live stage at NPS and served as a guinea pig for the novel hybrid approach—which was quite successful. His presentation was titled “Rescue Strike Team, an Alternative to Rescue Task Force” and focused on multiagency response to active shooter events. He presented evidence that rescue strike teams are more effective when speed is the ultimate goal, and you need to get into the threat zone and get victims out of harm’s way quickly. Saylors shared the results of a recent exercise with different regional agencies that effectively reduced the time from 45 minutes to 9 minutes. During the active shooter exercise, which took place in a Sacramento nightclub, one of the crucial aspects was the implementation of an inkblot formation instead of a traditional diamond formation to secure hot and cold zones. By securing entryways and identifying lines of fire instead of establishing concentric circles from the threat, they were able to retrieve victims faster. “It’s never going to be 100% secure or safe but we can reduce the potential for risk and provide assistance to victims faster.” Among the many ideas that came from the discussion was the recommendation of properly functioning medical sleds. He suggested that it should be incorporated into training and assign two per rig for most fire departments.

Day two of APEX proceeded with more Alumni Short Talks covering topics from civil unrest to misinformation campaigns. CHDS Association President Chris Pope delivered a message to the attendees and thanked the alumni for their support and numerous contributions over the years. Pope will be departing and Debra Kirby will take the helm as President of the CHDS Association. Kirby graduated from the CHDS Master’s Degree Program in 2011 (MA 1001/1002) and is Operations Leader at Hillard Heintze. “For everybody attending APEX, the issues we discuss here are the issues of our time and the ability to tap into the knowledge, capacity, and awareness of this group is even more critical now than it was in the past,” she summarized. “So, I look forward to making sure this board and association are supporting you and helping you thrive collectively.”

Each Alumni Short Talk included 15 minutes of discussion after the presentation and was facilitated by David O’Keeffe, CHDS Senior Consultant. Cynthia Renaud, President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), kicked off the day with an insightful presentation titled “Rethinking Law Enforcement Response to Mass Gatherings & Civil Unrest.” Renaud graduated from the CHDS Master’s Degree Program in 2010 (MA 0901/0902) and recently served as Chief of the Santa Monica Police Department in Southern California. She engaged participants to consider how the nature of mass gatherings has evolved over the years as potential crises become more complex. Renaud’s Alumni Short Talk harkened back to the master’s thesis she completed over ten years ago, “Making Sense in the Edge of Chaos: A Framework for Effective Initial Response Efforts to Large-Scale Incidents.” She received the Outstanding Thesis Award for that research, as voted by her peers based on academic rigor and the quality of the literature review, analysis, conclusions, and overall presentation of the thesis. In Renaud’s presentation, she identified some of the traditional methods for responding to mass protests and the challenges they present. “Sometimes these old tools need to be re-evaluated over time,” Renaud suggested. “Perhaps the best new tool we have to address these new modern crises is our ability to think critically. As we learn more through experience, those lessons need to be integrated into future strategies.” She emphasized a need to broaden mutual aid sources by involving the community for a number of reasons—one being the potential scenario where responders are affected by the same catastrophe or event.

Lier Chen, Immigration Services Officer at DHS-USCIS

In “Hearing Muted Voices: Using Radical Subjectivity to Address Homeland Security Issues,” Lier Chen leveraged her experience to inform the group about a gap in the process that determines immigration policies. Chen is an Immigration Services Officer at DHS-USCIS in Newark, NJ, and a recent graduate of the CHDS Master’s Degree Program (MA 1903/1904). Her thesis research focused on a similar topic and her thesis “Muted Voices: Toward an Understanding of the U.S. Asylum Program at the Southwest Border” won the Outstanding Thesis Award. Chen began with the idea because she found risks in relying solely on quantitative information to make homeland security decisions. Lived experience can’t be ignored or excluded from the decision-making process. “We must look beyond datasets and charts to understand the issues from multiple perspectives—we must use radical subjectivity,” she explained. “It can serve as a qualitative baseline for how we approach and solve a problem.” Participants agreed with her assessment and discussed ways to get these muted voices heard within federal agencies without the person facing retaliation or the chilling effect for speaking out. Chen went on to describe the concept known as ‘Muted Voices’ to help identify, access, and hear the first-hand experiences of affected groups.

Misinformation is a very hot topic lately, but misleading news accounts have been used in the United States since the pre-revolutionary days. Benjamin Franklin once wrote about fake atrocities in an attempt to draw Britain into more assistance during the French and Indian War. The rise of online communication and social media has provided an easier platform to disseminate propaganda though. John Gordon shared his insight to the dangers of misinformation in an Alumni Short Talk titled “No Crisis Left to Waste: Exploring Convergent Themes in Extremist Propaganda.” Gordon is the Team Leader, Global Trends and Developments, Intelligence Bureau at the New York City Police Department. He graduated in 2016 (MA 1501/1502) and his thesis was titled “Redirected Radicals: Understanding the Risk of Altered Targeting Trajectories Among ISIL’s Aspiring Foreign Fighters.” Gordon highlighted past examples of extremist actions that were fueled by propaganda. He suggested, “We face threats from many different crises like the pandemic, civil unrest, economic recession, and political polarization. While each of these crises is distinct in unique ways, they share one common factor—their continuous exploitation by extremists across a wide range of ideologies.” Gordon argues that these multi-pronged crises have created an environment where the general public is more susceptible to extremist propaganda. That’s why it is imperative to maintain situational awareness in a crisis environment by sharing information across agencies when we encounter threats from open source, social media sources.

In an exchange that was emblematic of the collaborative CHDS network, Executive Leaders Program alumnus Jason Ackleson, Ph.D. (ELP 1901) noted, “These APEX sessions could not have been more timely. We found Cynthia and John’s presentations very relevant to key senior leadership priorities at DHS headquarters—so much so that we’re doing some direct follow-up with them.” Ackleson is Principal Director of Law Enforcement Policy for the DHS Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans and the topics covered during APEX have already produced further discussion internally.

Panel discussion after the Pecha Kuchas on day three.

After a brief introduction to the Pecha Kucha presentation style and a description of the objectives, presenters delved into critical topics like COVID-19, National Guard deployments, and Russian disinformation efforts. The Pecha Kuchas proved to be an effective way to brief the group on specific issues, resulting in rich dialogue afterward. One of the Pecha Kuchas utilized the format to introduce a new Special COVID Issue of Homeland Security Affairs Journal (HSAJ). CHDS Instructor Lauren Fernandez, D.Sc, and Stephen Twing, Ph.D., Managing Editor of HSAJ, explained the purpose of the special COVID edition, which features eleven essays that chronicle agency and jurisdictional responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The essays focus on how agencies or jurisdictions changed their operations to deal more effectively with the pandemic and the lessons learned thus far. Fernandez also helped facilitate the panel discussion that followed the other presentations.

The second Pecha Kucha was delivered by Erik Dahl, Ph.D., CHDS Associate Professor and Academic Associate for Ph.D. Security Studies at NPS. His presentation was titled “Warnings Unheeded, Again: What the Intelligence Lessons of 9/11 Tell Us about the Coronavirus Today.” Many people consider the 9/11 terrorist attacks a failure of intel due to our inability to imagine such a threat. The threat from COVID-19 is one that we’ve prepared for after previous pandemics. But there are still challenges that arise from our reluctance to fully utilize the available intel, such as privacy concerns related to contact tracing. “We need to ensure there are some level of safeguards of civil liberties, some sort of method for oversight. When you collect this much data it needs to be constantly balanced and recalibrated. We might not always think about those things when we consider domestic intelligence, but I think we need to.”

Christopher Whiting broached the link between public privacy and coronavirus in a presentation titled “COVID-19: Public Health, Privacy, and Law Enforcement, A Precarious Balancing Act.” Whiting is the Counterterrorism Coordinator at the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office in Paramus, NJ. He’s currently enrolled in the CHDS Master’s Degree Program (MA 2001/2001) and his thesis research focuses on a law enforcement risk model to combat opioid abuse.

Matthew Austin is also a current participant in the Master’s Degree Program (MA 2001/2002), scheduled to graduate in September 2021. Austin is an Executive Officer for DHS-USCG Air Station, Sector Field Office in Port Angeles, WA. His preliminary thesis research is on the effect of wearable devices to improve pre-operational fatigue assessment by USCG aircrews. In his Pecha Kucha presentation, “Wearables: Useful Sentinels of Our Health?” he dug into his research to address the topic from a similar angle.

As noted on day two, disinformation campaigns have the potential to affect more than just the way we think, but also threaten the proverbial fabric of democracy. In “COVID-19 Effects and Russian Disinformation Campaigns,” Dr. Kacper Gradon and Dr. Wesley Moy drew from their personal experiences to shed light on the subject. Moy is an Adjunct Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and Adjunct Professor at National Intelligence University and Gradon is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Forensic Sciences University of Warsaw in Poland. As with most complex problems, there isn’t a simple solution. Misleading news can be combated by engaging individuals to think critically on social media and by developing greater media literacy. focusing on how design affects news perception. News consumers have a shared responsibility. Readers must gauge bias and motivation by understanding how and why the information is presented.

Paul Jara, Director of Staff at the Arkansas Air National Guard, completed the CHDS Master’s Degree Program in 2019 (MA 1705/1706). His thesis, “Framework for National Guard Employment in the Homeland” explores whether the Guard can be better employed in disasters by adjudicating matters of defense over security and engaging in a federalism conversation aimed at discriminating between disasters that are ‘national matters’ and those that are ‘state matters.’ A lot has changed in that short period of time and staying connected to the CHDS network has helped him stay informed of issues and share information across jurisdictions. Jara’s presentation followed a similar theme and was titled “How Should the National Guard Be Employed for The Next National Disaster?”

Heather Issvoran, CHDS Strategic Communications Director

The final Pecha Kucha presentation was delivered by Heather Issvoran, CHDS Strategic Communications Director. Heather interacts with nearly every CHDS program participant, faculty, and staff member and has a significant effect on the way CHDS is represented. Her contributions to the overall perception and effectiveness of the CHDS brand are immeasurable. In her presentation “Creating a Personal Brand Strategy,” Heather shared tips that she’s learned about developing a brand and how participants can implement similar techniques—within their own personal career or within their agency. “The reason why we have APEX is to bring the research that people are doing out into the open, so you can learn from their experiences and emulate what they’re doing,” she summarized.

Some of the folks who helped make the Virtual APEX a success

At the end of day three, Director Woodbury took the stage once again to deliver the APEX closing remarks. “APEX always provides content that’s relevant to the diverse missions our alumni serve and this may have been the most unique one yet. Not just because we transitioned to a hybrid delivery format. It’s because when you look at this year’s topics and speakers, the collaboration between local, state, federal, tribal, territorial, and private sector leaders is undeniable.” Woodbury also provided an update on the future of CHDS programs and fielded questions from attendees—which led to some great ideas in an exchange that was symbolic of the Center’s commitment to providing homeland security leaders with a trusted place to learn and share information.

The threats confronting homeland security have never been more urgent and the sooner we identify a problem, the sooner we can collaborate to solve it. That is why these opportunities to share and discuss our collective challenges are so important and timely. As Heather likes to say, “Stay connected and stay informed.” The next APEX will include In-person sessions with online components and is scheduled for June 22-24. Registration is open—and as much as we enjoy seeing you on Zoom, we would always rather see your smiling (or masked) faces.