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Chertoff pledges to address communications

The nation’s homeland security chief pledged Wednesday that 75 metropolitan areas would have advanced disaster communications systems by 2009 but acknowledged that friction among emergency agencies continues to hinder progress.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The nation’s homeland security chief pledged Wednesday that 75 metropolitan areas would have advanced disaster communications systems by 2009 but acknowledged that friction among emergency agencies continues to hinder progress.

“We are determined to get this job done in the next two years,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said at a news briefing.

He did not say how much the effort would cost, but so far the government has distributed more than $2.9 billion to communities around the country with mixed results. Democrats who will control Congress this year have also promised to make communications upgrades a priority, but have provided little detail.

Chertoff released a survey of how well the 75 U.S. communities have prepared their first responders to communicate during a catastrophe. More than five years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, exposed severe weaknesses in the ability of emergency workers to communicate with each other, the report gave only six of the areas studied the highest grades.

Portions of the report had been obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.

‘Longstanding cultural differences’
Chertoff said Wednesday that since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, agencies have tried to overcome old turf rivalries that can hamper emergency work.

“In some communities, not all, there are some longstanding cultural differences between different kinds of responders,” including police, firefighters and medical personnel, Chertoff said. “I think that is a challenge and that culture has been a challenge.”

The report found that while emergency agencies in more than 60 percent of the communities studied had the ability to talk to each other during a crisis, only 21 percent overall showed “the seamless use” of equipment needed to also communicate with state and federal officials.

The report’s highest ratings went to the Washington, D.C., area; San Diego; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Columbus, Ohio; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Laramie County, Wyo.

The lowest scores went to Chicago; Cleveland; Baton Rouge, La.; Mandan, N.D.; and American Samoa. The report includes large and small cities and their suburbs, along with U.S. territories.

In an overview, the report says all 75 areas surveyed have policies in place for helping their emergency workers communicate. But it also finds that “formalized governance (leadership and planning) across regions has lagged.”

The study is likely to add fuel to what looms as a battle in Congress this year. Democrats who take over the majority this week have promised to try fixing the problem emergency agencies have communicating with each other but have not said specifically what they will do, how much it will cost or how they will pay for it.

“Five years after 9/11, we continue to turn a deaf ear to gaps in interoperable communications,” — the term used for emergency agencies’ abilities to talk to each other, said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “If it didn’t have such potentially devastating consequences, it would be laughable.”

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, revealed major problems in how well emergency agencies were able to talk to each other during a catastrophe. Many firefighters climbing the World Trade Center towers died when they were unable to hear police radio warnings to leave the crumbling buildings.

The report says first responders in New York now have well-established systems to communicate with each other — but not the best, most advanced possible. Thirteen U.S. cities score better than New York.

Judged in three categories
Communities were judged in three categories: operating procedures in place, use of communications systems and how effectively local governments have coordinated in preparation for a disaster.

Most of the areas surveyed included cities and their surrounding communities, based on the assumption that in a major crisis emergency personnel from all local jurisdictions would respond.

The areas with the six best scores were judged advanced in all three categories. The cities with the lowest grades had reached the early implementation stage for only one category, and intermediate grades in the other two categories.

The Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications took issue with the report’s methodology and findings.

“We strongly disagree with the results of this study, and feel that the parameters of the study were inconsistent and limited,” the statement said.

Tammy Lapp, the emergency coordinator for Mandan and Morton County, N.D., said she was not surprised by their low ranking on the scorecard.

“We knew with our limited funds, we were going to fall short,” she said.