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Chertoff vows emergency communications upgrade in NYC, elsewhere

WASHINGTON—The nation’s homeland security chief pledged Wednesday that 75 metropolitan areas, including New York, would have modern disaster communications systems in place by 2009, even as a report by his agency conceded that many communities have a long way to go.

While providing no concrete detail, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff essentially promised to scrap old radios and ancient grudges that continue to bedevil communications during crises, even five years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

A survey released by his agency gave the highest grades for emergency communications to only six of 75 cities and regions studied. In effect, Chertoff was promising an ambitious two-year effort to give them a top-quality emergency communications system, a pledge that raised questions for some analysts.

Richard Rotanz, an adviser at Adelphi University and former emergency response official in Nassau County, said the report was unclear about what standards the government planned to reach.

“They should have broken it all down more so you can understand where they are weak and strong,” Rotanz said. “Instead, what you get is a very vague description of where things are and where they want to go.”

Guy Clinch, an executive for Avaya Inc., which sells communications products to the federal and local governments, said the report seemed “almost intentionally vague” about what Chertoff hopes to accomplish.

Chertoff did not indicate what the price tag would be for the improvements or hard rules for specific technology upgrades.

Since Sept. 11, 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.

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

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

The danger of poor communications in a disaster was glaringly obvious in the 2001 terrorist attacks, when many New York fire personnel did not hear the call to evacuate the burning towers of the World Trade Center. Overall, 343 firefighters died.

Chertoff said Wednesday that among the hurdles are old turf rivalries between first responders that can hamper emergency work.

“In some communities, not all, there are some long-standing cultural differences between different kinds of responders—fire, police and EMS—that have caused resistance to working together,’’ he said.

One local official said a similar problem exists between federal and local agencies, but that it, too, is improving.

“There has been a sea change since 9/11,’’ said Gerry Connolly, the chairman of Fairfax County, VA, which is part of the nation’s capital region.

For federal authorities working with the locals, Connolly said, “that’s not a badge of shame any longer.”

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

The D.C.-area’s communication system was put to use recently in handling the funeral for former President Gerald R. Ford, Chertoff said.

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

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said Wednesday he was very proud of his city’s efforts, despite its low score, arguing that Chicago was “far ahead in dealing with homeland security.”

Chertoff said cities in the scorecard should not be compared with each other because each faces a unique set of challenges. He praised Chicago, saying its low grade was because the city and surrounding Cook County need to improve their working relationships.

Other cities were found to need technological upgrades. The Houston area, for instance, has a 16-year-old radio system that “must be replaced,” according to the scorecard.

The metropolitan area of New York and New Jersey, Chertoff said, has made a “very, very substantial amount of progress compared to where they were on 9/11,” saying it is one place in particular that has seen a concerted effort to overcome long-standing rivalries between police and fire personnel. n

Published in Public Safety IT, Jan/Feb 2007

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