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March 8, 2013

Homeland Security’s Strange Definition of Risk

Joe Charlebois

In the same week that the Department of Homeland Security directed the Transportation Security Agency to allow small knives, and some previously banned sporting goods back onto planes flown in the United States, it also directed the National Emergency Training Center (NETC) in Emmitsburg, to discontinue the policy of allowing use of the facilities to scouting groups based on security and liability.


The use of the NETC – FEMA’s home to the National Fire Academy, United States Fire Administration, Emergency Management Institute and National Fallen Firefighters Memorial – has been open to the public for years. It is home to a small stream, log cabin and large fields that parallel the Catoctin Mountain Highway and the classrooms of the historic Saint Joseph College – which closed in the early 70s – currently house FEMA students from all over the United States.


In the past a local coordinator for the NETC and adult leaders from Boy Scouts of America’s Catoctin Mountain District have worked together to open up the facility for several events such as Junior Leader Training, first aid training, merit badge days, Camp Airy staff training and end of year picnics.


This week a local scout leader received notice that effective immediately all future and planned events on the NETC would be cancelled. The reason he was told was that the Scout’s use of the facilities cannot continue while maintaining compliance with various federal laws, rules and regulations. The notification also suggested that the district’s future events be scheduled at either a state or federal park.


Upon further questioning by the local scout leader as to how this came about, he was told that the decision was made based on comments made by an advisory lawyer for FEMA. Further clarification that was made revealed that the cancellation of activities has no correlation to the federal sequestration. It was again stated that the only reasons given were strictly for “security” and “liability.”


Security at the NETC has tightened over the years and most recently the security detail has required that any group visiting the campus be accompanied by a federal government employee with a valid background check and that each adult must provide their Social Security Number for background checks days in advance.


Far from being a security risk, the local scouting districts that have used the NETC facilities for well over a decade have cooperated immensely with any security measures that they have been asked to follow. If there is a true security issue or liability concern, it isn’t obvious. If there was, the NETC would be guarded much more heavily than it currently is.


Liability is not an issue for the Boy Scouts of America. Each scout and scout leader are covered. In regards to the venue; the scouts indemnifies companies and venues that hold scouting events.


What remains in question is just which laws are still relevant to this administration. Are “ancient” laws such as the "Public Buildings Cooperative Use Act of 1976," which “encourage(s) the public use of public buildings for cultural, educational, and recreational activities” still valid? If so, what are the real reasons that groups are prohibited from using federal facilities?


Ironically public events such as the upcoming National Fallen Firefighter Memorial Weekend – held on the campus of the NETC – will only require visitors to provide a valid driver’s license or photo identification. The October event brings in thousands to the NETC campus and is a great example of using public facilities at its best.


However the power of a bureaucracy to act as its own legislative and executive arm of the federal government shows its ugly colors when ignoring laws such as the “Public Buildings Cooperative Use Act of 1976” in discriminating against groups like the Boy Scouts.


Ironically the same Department of Homeland Security that oversees both the Transportation Safety Administration and FEMA this week has decided that an Eagle Scout teaching first aid to a Tenderfoot is a greater risk to a campus at the foot of the Catoctin Mountains than a potentially crazy man with a pocket knife on a 747.


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