6 of 75 cities get top disaster rating: DHS Makes " interoperable communications" an issue
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - On Sept. 11, 2001, New York fire battalion chief Dennis Devlin issued an urgent plea: His men were in "a state of confusion" and needed more working radios immediately. Yet, more than five years since Devlin and 342 other members of the city's fire department perished at the World Trade Center, the government says only six U.S. cities have fully answered the late fire chief's call by adopting advanced emergency communications systems.
New York is not one of the six, according to the scorecard by the Homeland Security Department that was to be released Wednesday.
A draft portion of the report obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press gives the best ratings to the Washington, D.C., area; San Diego; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Columbus, Ohio; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Laramie County, Wyo.
The lowest scores go 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."
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke would not comment on the report, saying only that in releasing it Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff will "talk about nationwide assessments for interoperable communications."
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.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, $2.9 billion in federal grant money has been distributed to state and local first responders for the improvement of their emergency communications systems.
Yet just over a year ago, Hurricane Katrina underscored communication problems when radio transmissions were hindered because the storm's winds toppled towers.
A separate report the Homeland Security Department released last month found that emergency workers from different agencies are capable of talking to each other in two-thirds of 6,800 U.S. communities surveyed.
But David Boyd, who heads the Homeland Security office that conducted the study, said in an interview that only about 10 percent of them have systems so fully developed that different agencies can communicate with each other routinely. That survey did not name the cities that provided data.
In the report to be released Wednesday, 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. "In some instances, the scorecard evaluated urban areas or regions that contain a small number of independent jurisdictions and compared them with urban areas or regions containing significantly higher numbers of independent jurisdictions — an apples to oranges comparison across the board."
The statement said that in 2006, Chertoff described the city's Operations Center, which is responsible for communications among various agencies and jurisdictions, "as a great model for the country."
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.
Associated Press Writer Beverley Lumpkin contributed to this report.