Q&A with Dr. G. Kemble Bennett
Dr. G. Kemble Bennett, dean of the Dwight Look College of Engineering, director of the Texas Engineering Experiment Station and vice chancellor of the Texas A&M University System talks about terrorism, engineering solutions to protect our citizens and the day the towers fell.
“Not in my wildest moments did I ever think Osama bin Laden would become a household name. I honestly thought we had more to fear from radical militia groups like Timothy McVeigh’s. The concern about domestic terrorism was embedded in my mind when the Murrah Federal Building was bombed in Oklahoma City in 1995. But even before that I knew the name bin Laden. He was clearly enemy number one in international terrorism, but I don’t think that fully hit me until the World Trade Center attack on 9/11. I was driving to an appointment that morning when I heard on the radio that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center. I knew immediately we were under attack. I knew without hesitation that it was terrorism.
The radio commentators were discussing that maybe a small plane had hit the building, but I knew there was no way such a thing could happen in that airspace.
Twenty minutes later I got a call asking me to standby to deploy our Urban Search and Rescue team. They’d hunted me down in my meeting.
Now almost six years later I can say, without question, we’re better prepared than we were back then—considerably better prepared.”
G. Kemble Bennett, Ph.D., P.E
Q: Dr. Bennett, you’ve been in positions of leadership in the Engineering Program for two decades at Texas A&M. Given your tenure in engineering, both before and now after 9/11, how have you seen engineering and research here adapt to confront the engineering challenges posed by terrorist attacks?
A: I don’t think there was much focus on homeland security before about 1995. In those days people mainly thought that terror attacks or acts of extreme violence would happen somewhere else. Then the first attempt on the World Trade Center, the bomb, served as a warning that we were being targeted. I think the people in the intelligence community and the first responders very much viewed that attack as a warning, but among the rest of the country, I don’t think it was given much thought.
Then, the Oklahoma City bombing came along. It was a domestic act of terrorism. That was a wakeup call to me and to others here at Texas A&M. We knew we were in a new era. At the time I was responsible for the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX), which was training first responders, meaning fire, police and emergency medical personnel. This bombing told us, “We better get prepared to respond to new types of threats we hadn’t seen before.” We needed to focus on heavy rescue and mass casualty incidents. During that time the public really didn’t want to admit that we were being targeted and that weapons of mass destruction could be used in this country. People thought that we were being alarmist, but we pushed ahead and received federal funding from the Department of Justice to provide training for our nation’s first responders.
Then 9/11 happened. Although there were a limited number of people trained around the country to handle an emergency of that magnitude, the nation as a whole wasn’t prepared for such a massive attack. 9/11 got everyone’s attention. We realized we were at war. We faced a new type of enemy that threatened our very way of life. Before that attack, if we had talked about putting barriers around the Capitol Building in Washington or any of the security steps we now endure at airports, people would have felt it was absurd. Our whole way of life changed.
The U.S. took the attack very seriously. The Engineering Program took it seriously, too. After 9/11 Congress passed a special appropriations bill that doubled our budget and doubled our mission. And unfortunately since then, terrorism-related engineering and training has been a growth industry. With respect to funding, the first thing the government needed to do was boost intelligence funding. Next, they needed to make sure our communities were prepared for an attack with emergency equipment. We had to find ways to coordinate local, state and federal emergency responses. Then the government consolidated a number of related federal entities and agencies by creating the Department of Homeland Security.
It became clear that our engineering research program and our training programs could contribute. Shortly after the attacks, communities began getting federal money to purchase equipment for use in case of another attack. Companies cropped up everywhere to supply a plethora of emergency equipment, but there was no “Consumer Reports” these communities could use to evaluate how well this equipment really worked.
So we started to test and evaluate equipment. We created the System Assessment and Validation for Emergency Responders (SAVER) program to test equipment and to make sure first responders have functional protective gear, the right tools to disable or minimize explosives and other essential, life-saving tools.
The Texas Transportation Institute’s (TTI) transportation experience and expertise has helped study barrier systems that facilities worldwide need in order to hinder or stop attacks. Funds flowed into this area for research, but not enough. We’re now starting to see some national centers form and more focus on research and testing. Some of the funds that were in ‘response’ have been shifted to “research.” But I think we’re still in our early years of research for homeland security.
There’s probably not an area in abundant homeland security needs for research and advancement that the Engineering Program between TTI, the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX), the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) and the Look College doesn’t have a role in. We certainly make an impact.
Q: Can you describe for us the importance of the homeland security research underway at TTI?
A: For years TTI’s Riverside Campus has served as an applied laboratory designed to study all areas of transportation safety, including roadway barrier designs and vehicle features. The facility is being used, for example, to test security barriers to protect facilities from terrorist attacks.
More broadly, TTI has also worked in El Paso with border security work. They’re helping answer questions like, “How do we keep the traffic flowing along the border and still monitor what might be in vehicles along the border?” The whole area of border security is a big one for Texas, which is a microcosm of the U.S. Like the U.S. we have a border that needs securing. We have ports with goods coming in from international ships and we have goods flowing in from Mexico. The border is a very important place where we can help provide national security.
The above photos show a full-scale crash test of the U.S. Department of State, Diplomatic Security, Super Fence Design at TTI’s Riverside Campus Proving Grounds facility.
Q: The Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) and the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) are providing vital, world-class, weapons of mass destruction training and first responder equipment testing programs. How well does the comprehensive partnership between these agencies and TTI or the broader Engineering Program help position Texas A&M as a leader in the fight against terrorism?
A: I don’t know of another engineering program in the country organized as we are. Our four entities, TTI, TEES, TEEX and the Look College of Engineering, comprise this unique engineering program. Each organization has its mission. Three are state agencies, and one is an academic college, but they’re all formed under the land grant mission of the 1860 Morrell Act. Meaning, these land grant universities were to provide services, education and research that would help citizens. Back then these schools were mostly oriented toward agriculture. Extension helped researchers share what they learned with farmers. As the country became more technical, that same model found its way into engineering. The “M” in Texas A&M stood for “mechanical,” and today that has evolved into using technology to serve our citizens—and that’s what our research programs are about.
TTI focuses on all modes of transportation. TEES is oriented toward a broad area of other research disciplines. And TEEX carries this knowledge to the outside world through its training programs. In the area of homeland security, we have faculty looking at new sensors and new security construction techniques, and we also have applied research groups like TTI who take knowledge and put it into practice. TTI can deploy technologies to make them useful. Coupled with the faculty here and the other agencies, the power of our engineering program is the fact that agencies with different missions come together here. The sum of these agencies is stronger than any of the individual parts. By having the research areas clearly focused on transportation and conducted by leaders in transportation, TTI is the natural lead to study ways of securing our national transportation system. Who better to lead that in the nation but TTI?
Put the research of TTI, TEES, and the Look College of Engineering together with the training and outreach at TEEX, and you’ll see that the Engineering Program at Texas A&M University has amassed quite a bit of intellectual power to approach some of the major homeland security challenges our country will face.
That original 1860 mission is still alive today; we’re just looking at different problems. Homeland Security is something we need to do for our country. We can talk about lofty solutions, but the Engineering Program here also puts solutions in place where the rubber meets the road. Here we can bring teams together. We don’t have to hand off research or progress to someone else. We can ‘think tank’ issues, and we can field test, too.
In my conversations with the Department of Homeland Security, they’re delighted with our capabilities. We’re strong because our diverse engineering components aren’t separate or disconnected.
Q: What avenues of homeland security and safety research do you see the Engineering Program pursuing in the future?
A: We know we need to work on security sensors and emergency equipment to make equipment portable and reliable in all circumstances—emergency and otherwise. We’ll need to look at our infrastructure, roads and buildings, and our food supply to determine how to protect them along with communication lines and computer systems.
With TTI’s help we’ll continue to look at ways to evacuate people from disasters and develop better models to get people out of harms way. When disasters do strike or when terrorists attack we’ll have already studied, simulated, and analyzed our response. We need plans. We need to have them on hand and ready to use, and TTI is helping with that as well.
The Aggie family has always answered when our nation needed us. Through world wars and economic roller coasters Texas A&M University (TAMU) and the broader University System (TAMUS) have risen to offer the men, women and mindset necessary to tackle the challenges of the day and prepare for those yet to come. TTI would like to thank Dr. Bennett for his leadership and for sharing his views.