CHDS Alumni Win Homeland Security Award

Jeanne Benincasa Thorpe (ELP 1602)

Government Technology & Services Coalition’s publication Homeland Security Today recently announced the recipients of their annual Homeland Security Awards and two alumni from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS) were among the honorees. CHDS Master’s Degree Program graduate Derrick Phillips, Battalion Chief at St. Louis Fire Department, received the Mission Award and CHDS Executive Leaders Program alumna Jeanne Benincasa Thorpe received the Coronavirus Mission Award. Thorpe is the Undersecretary of Homeland Security and Governor’s Homeland Security Advisor at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS). Each year, Homeland Security Today honors members of the community who are making critical contributions to advance the mission of homeland security and protect the nation from security threats. With the unprecedented threat of COVID-19 affecting every facet of homeland security, Homeland Security Today identified Mission Award winners whose work had a significant result on our collective response to the pandemic. While they may work in different fields of homeland security, both alumni cited CHDS as a key factor in their actions and response to the COVID-19 pandemic during the last year. “The COVID-19 pandemic struck in the middle of my master’s program at CHDS. Not only did we have to pivot from the classroom to virtual learning, but we also had to immediately put into practice the theories and concepts we were learning to understand and manage such an important issue,” Phillips noted. “My time at CHDS was the most rewarding learning experience of my lifetime, and my newly discovered knowledge played a pivotal role in the receipt of my Homeland Security Mission Award.”

Derrick Phillips (MA 1903/1904)

Battalion Chief Phillips completed the CHDS Master’s Degree Program in December 2020 (cohort 1903/1904) and his thesis was titled “Fire Service Intelligence: Informed Strategies, Operations, and Tactics.” His thesis research was leveraged to develop a comprehensive list of intelligence requirements that ensure fire departments receive timely and specific intel regarding strategies, operational coordination, and tactical decision-making. The results will be incorporated into the updated Joint Counterterrorism Assessment Team (JCAT) Intelligence Guide for First Responders and will become a valuable asset to fire service locations across the nation. This list is the most comprehensive of its kind developed solely for fire service agencies, and it reflects the input from fire service agencies of all makeups and sizes throughout the nation—filling a gap that other first responder guides have missed by providing firefighters with the crucial intelligence required to most effectively perform their duties. “I learned about the principle of joint intelligence from professors Dr. Erik Dahl and Captain Robert Simeral in our course on Intelligence Challenges. The two went on to serve as my thesis advisors and opened my eyes to a broader view on how the fire service can leverage intelligence to inform decision-making in all levels of a fire service organization. Dr. Carolyn Halladay, Dr. Lauren Wollman, Greta Marlatt, and Marianne Taflinger also played an important role as they pushed, poked, and prodded us through the research and thesis writing process.”

Phillips with Former President Barack Obama

The initial idea for Phillips’ thesis spawned from his many experiences as a participant in multiagency exercises. He has filled a wide breadth of roles for many full-scale exercises in St. Louis over the past decade. While most of the exercises were unsurprisingly successful, it was the few mission failures that quest for solutions. “During the exercises, it seemed as if law enforcement were always several steps ahead of us in planning and decision-making, inclusive of using the incident command system. The last part was particularly troubling since the fire service tends to be slightly better at using ICS. Nonetheless, I discovered in after-action reviews that there was an intelligence component to the exercises, which only law enforcement personnel attending a day prior,” Phillips explained. “Unfortunately, none of the intelligence they gathered was shared with their fire service counterparts, even as we were working to stabilize the same incident. From that point forward, I made it my mission to ensure our department had access to intelligence starting with local PD contacts and extending to the placement of one of my officers in the St. Louis Fusion Center. Thanks to the work of other CHDS alumni, the fire service secured access to intelligence and serve in more pivotal roles in the intelligence community.” However, he cautions there are still issues with understanding how to use and protect finished intelligence, and how to access timely, relevant information. “My thesis built on their foundation to ensure intelligence is useful to the fire service, while at the same time highlighting the benefits of joint intelligence processes between law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical service agencies.”

Phillips completed the Fire Services Chief Executive Officer program at Texas A&M University in 2018.

The other theses topics from Phillips’ classmates focus on key homeland security issues confronting their jurisdictions, in the form of cybersecurity, disaster response, human trafficking, immigration safeguards, public safety, school security, social unrest, and protecting space infrastructure. But the thesis process is just one component of the overall CHDS Master’s Degree Program experience. The subject matter and genuine exchanges with counterparts from other fields of emergency management, law enforcement, fire service, homeland security, local and state government, military, and public health provide unique insight. For instance, in the Intro to Homeland Security course, Phillips completed a short research assignment on the anti-vaccination movement. “The knowledge I gained from the exercise was how to develop an understanding of their fears, while simultaneously working with our health department in developing a plan to ensure the masses would buy into the COVID vaccination program,” he added. Phillips attributed the master’s program as a major influence on the way his department responded to the coronavirus pandemic. “In Critical Infrastructure Protection, Professor Mackin shifted slightly in the curriculum to ensure we understood how transmissivity worked by highlighting the SIR model.” The SIR model is an epidemiological model that computes the theoretical number of people infected with a contagious illness in a closed population over time. The models involved equations relating the number of susceptible people (S), number of people infected (I), and number of people who have recovered (R). “The model allowed me to explain the transmission process to other departmental and city leaders so they could better judge the potential impact. Additionally, he provided us with a calculator that we could use by simply plugging local numbers into the spreadsheet,” Phillips explained. “The associated graph was very impactful when discussing the implications of COVID in our jurisdiction, and the need to socially distance and wear masks to limit vectors of exposure. Additionally, we discussed COVID-19 in Comparative Government, where we evaluated how other countries were managing their COVID-19 responses in an effort to repackage their lessons learned into practices and protocols that could work in the United States. The comparative approach was important because there were several countries that were managing the pandemic much better than we were. I pushed out the lessons I learned to departmental leaders, emergency managers, and local health officials. Furthermore, the Multi-discipline Approaches to Homeland Security and the Internet, Society, and Cyberconflict courses taught us about disinformation campaigns and political discourse through various media, all of which weighed heavily on how people viewed and responded to the pandemic. The lessons I learned in both courses allowed me to easily identify disinformation regarding coronavirus and develop plans to counter them locally through our departmental public information officer. Clearly, CHDS is at the forefront of homeland security education, and the lessons can easily be adapted to manage real-world homeland defense and security challenges.”

Thorpe (on left) with fellow Bread of Life board members Kathleen McKenna at a fundraiser event in 2018.

During a pandemic, continuity of government is essential. Services can be compromised when the people charged with responding to the pandemic are vulnerable to the same exact threat. ELP alumna Jeanne Benincasa Thorpe oversees the Massachusetts FUSION Center, National Guard, Emergency Management Agency, Fire Administration, and Office of Grants and Research Homeland Security Division. She serves as key policy and executive decision advisor to the Secretary of Public Safety and the Homeland Security Advisor to the Governor. She’s also responsible for coordination with federal agencies, regional tasks forces, local governments, and the private sector. Thorpe credits CHDS with playing a role in attaining her position at EOPSS, “I strongly believe that participating in the ELP provided me the training in leadership and knowledge of international and domestic homeland security issues needed for this position.” During the initial outbreak of COVID-19, Thorpe quickly established a statewide testing site for first responders to ensure accurate and timely testing. The testing site provided appointment-free drive-through tests for more than 8,000 first responders to ensure public safety personnel could remain on active duty during uncertain times. The testing site was secured in partnership with Gillette Stadium and with the support of the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services, National Guard, Massachusetts State Police, Foxboro Fire Department, and Quest Diagnostic Labs. Collaboration across various agencies at the federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial levels is a main tenet of ELP, so these partnerships are reflective of the program outcomes. Thorpe’s ELP cohort (1602) included fire chiefs, police chiefs, military leaders, DHS officials, public health experts, and emergency management directors from state and county regions. “The diversity of my cohort provided a lens to view issues from different perspectives,” she shared. “The lessons I learned in 2016-2017 truly helped inform the way I approached the complex problems related to COVID-19 this past year.” The collaborative nature of ELP continues to resonate as Thorpe leads the COVID-19 response by coordinating public safety agencies and non-medical PPE distribution, developing strategic testing plans for first responders and essential workers, and establishing a mobile testing program for the Department of Corrections.