Homeland Security Summit

USC CREATE Experts Bring Real-World Solutions to Homeland Security Summit

By Cristy Lytal

Stephen Hora CREATE Director Stephen Hora
Photo by Tom Queally

At the fourth annual Department of Homeland Security University Network Summit, USC experts from the National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) impressed the homeland security community with what director Stephen Hora called “academic research that produces boots on the ground solutions.”

Established in 2004, CREATE was the first of 12 university-based Centers of Excellence authorized by Congress and chosen by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate through a competitive selection process.

Based at USC and funded by Homeland Security, the center unites experts from universities and research institutions across the country to evaluate the risks, costs and consequences of terrorism.

CREATE brought its expertise to bear on resilience, the theme of this year’s summit, held recently in Washington, D.C.

Adam Rose Research Professor Adam Rose
Photo by Amber Medley

“What resilience refers to is the ability to cope with and bounce back from a disaster, and it’s very important,” said Adam Rose, CREATE’s coordinator for economics and research professor at USC’s School of Policy, Planning, and Development. “We can’t prevent all disasters or terrorist attacks, and what we need to be able to do is to minimize the losses from those that do occur. You do that two ways: You use resources as efficiently as possible in recovering, and you recover as quickly as possible.”

Rose was the lead speaker on a panel attended by more than 300 people. The panel also featured CREATE affiliates from the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown and the Research Triangle Institute.

Using post-9/11 business relocation as an example, Rose demonstrated the extent to which resilience can mute business interruption losses after a disaster.

“In contrast to mitigation, which refers to possible preventative actions, resilient actions, done after the event, are typically much less expensive. So resilience is a very valuable second line of defense,” Rose said.

Rose also shared his research on the economic impacts of an H1N1 epidemic on another panel which included speakers from the Brookings Institution and Columbia University.

Richard John, a CREATE researcher and USC associate professor of psychology, moderated a panel on “Risk Perception and Communication to Enhance Resilience.” He presented a flu outbreak study with panelist Heather Rosoff, a postdoctoral researcher at CREATE who earned her Ph.D. at SPPD.

In the study, 600 people in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., took an online survey with video scenario simulation about a deadly flu outbreak.

“The challenge in these studies is forecasting into the future,” Rosoff said. “You have to get people in the mindset of actually being there. So we are using video scenarios to get a better idea of how the public perceives different terror- and disaster-related threats, and people in the risk perception community are very responsive to that approach.”

The researchers manipulated key factors, including the cause of the outbreak — terrorist attack, lab accident or unknown — and gauged subjects’ cognitive, emotional and behavioral responses. The researchers determined that hometown outbreaks were scariest when caused by terrorists, but opposite coast outbreaks induced the most fear when unleashed by lab accident.

“The people who are on the other side of the country are not out of the woods,” John said. “I mean, the flu is contagious, it’s deadly and it’s going to spread. But we view the terrorist attack as much more of a concern, we’re much more fearful, if it’s close. It seems more personal.”

Michael Orosz, a principal investigator at CREATE as well as a computer scientist and project leader with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Information Sciences Institute, moderated the panel “Challenges in Suspicious Activity Reporting.”

He discussed the Integrated Suspicious Activity Reporting and Decision Analysis System. This software, still in development, uses regional and national law enforcement reports of suspicious activity and other information to identify patterns and generate possible terrorist plans and scenarios. The software could help analysts make good decisions about allocating homeland security resources.

Orosz is also developing a software program called PortSec for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The program would track traffic in the ports and appropriately allocate security resources such as patrol boats, squad cars and camera systems to ensure the most efficient protection.

“You’re bringing intel in. You’re trying to figure out what’s going on,” he said. “You’re reallocating resources in order to really reduce risk. There are some subtle differences, but that’s the basic paradigm.”

While the summit allowed universities, the government and private industry to share research, it also enabled students to explore future job opportunities. Former CREATE fellow Marcel Hovsepian, who earned his master’s degree in public policy at SPPD in 2009, now works in the Los Angeles mayor’s office of homeland security and public safety.

“As a fellow, I was able to participate in executive leadership conferences, work on specific projects for CREATE, go to brown bag meetings and do all kinds of stuff that I never would have had access to otherwise,” he said. “I was also able to do research on homeland security-related topics. It gave me a focus.”

Before leaving Washington, D.C., the CREATE team showcased the real-world impact of its research in a meeting with Tara O’Toole, the new Homeland Security under secretary for science and technology and a keynote speaker at the summit. That meeting included a presentation of CREATE’s work focusing on the randomization of air marshals and airport patrols.

“They’re using software developed at CREATE to schedule the air marshals right now, so that’s a real impact study that we’ve done,” said Hora, a research professor at SPPD. “We’re very proud of that, and going forward, we’re going to try to do that more and more.”