Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Dangerously Unprepared

‘Dangerously Unprepared’

2005 should have taught the United States many lessons about being unprepared for hurricanes. But a new report finds most coastal states still aren't ready.

By Jennifer Barrett

May 23, 2006 - Even though 2006 isn’t expected to bring as many hurricanes as last year’s record-breaking season, emergency responders have reason to be worried. A recent report by the First Response Coalition noted that radio communication between first responders was not adequate despite a federal effort to improve communications for rescue workers after the 2001 terror attacks. NEWSWEEK’s Jennifer Barrett spoke with the group’s executive director, Steven Jones, about what needs to be done now to avert another disaster like the one that followed Katrina. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted between eight and 10 hurricanes would hit the north Atlantic this season, with four to six of them reaching Category 3 strength or higher. Are we prepared to handle such storm activity?

Steven Jones: In our report, we found that in some states, first responders weren’t as prepared as they need to be. Some states have made some notable advancements, like Florida and South Carolina. But no single state in the Southeast is 100 percent prepared for this year’s storm season. One of the big hurdles is that even though states may have established statewide plans, many local communities don’t have the local tax base to afford to abandon existing radios and buy into the statewide system. It’s a cost issue.

What could that mean in the event of an emergency?
What we find is that too often first responders are unable to communicate with one another. Different agencies use different radios that are not compatible. The big lesson we learned on 9/11, tragically, is that when you can’t communicate, you can’t coordinate your response. An estimated 120 firefighters lost their lives in the collapse of one of the twin towers [in New York] because they never received the call to evacuate because it was issued on police radios and the firefighters had a different system.

Jones: ‘We have lost enough lives already’But have we learned that lesson? Communication seemed to be an issue in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina too.
I think one of the primary components of the communication problem there was an operability problem. You had a massive hurricane—a category 3 by the time it made land—and it knocked down and out a lot of the infrastructure. The communication just didn’t work. But that problem was exacerbated when, after the storm came through, different responders were coming into the affected area from different regions and they each had their own unique radio systems and couldn’t coordinate effectively with other responders. When you are unable to communicate, you just can’t coordinate an effective response. You also lose situational awareness—you are unaware of what is going on around you. You don’t have accurate information.

And yet, despite the criticisms of the response effort to Hurricane Katrina, your report found that “many hurricane zone states remain dangerously unprepared for another disaster.” How so?

Mississippi has 40 different radio systems in use across the state. Since June of 2005 officials there have held 13 meetings to discuss the problem. But they haven’t implemented any solutions. Alabama’s emergency management agency provides preprogrammed radios to first responders in case of a disaster. But that means that if anyone responds to a disaster in Alabama they will have to go to a designated area where these radios are available. And at about $2,000 to $5,000 apiece, there’s only a limited number because they’re so expensive. So on the front end, it’s a cost issue. But you are also compromising your emergency response because you’re diverting your resources to where they get these radios. First responders need to have the resources available to them to do their job immediately when every second counts. North Carolina is working to implement a statewide interoperability system. But again, many local communities just don’t have the funds to scrap existing radio communications and buy into the new system.

What about Louisiana?
After Hurricane Katrina, there was interoperability within the city of New Orleans [between police, firefighters and other responders] but they couldn’t communicate with the state police. Louisiana has a statewide police network that is only accessible by the state police.

Are any hurricane-prone states prepared?
I have to compliment South Carolina and Florida. They both, probably through previous experience with hurricanes, have developed statewide operability and it’s available to all jurisdictions that can connect to it. The caveat again is that many localities can’t afford to connect.

You note in your report that more than $11 billion has been given to the states to improve response capabilities since 9/11. Where’s the money going?
One thing we found that is really frustrating is that the federal government allocates this money to the states and what happens to it, and when, we don’t know. It’s unclear how that money gets from states to the local level. And there’s no mechanism in place to tell us how effectively that money is being spent.

What needs to be done now?
There needs to be not just increased federal leadership but collaboration with local and state officials. The Department of Homeland Security needs to complete its national interoperability baseline study: a snapshot of where the gaps exist and where advances have been made. That will help us define a plan. This is one of the more frustrating things. They were supposed to have started this last year, but they haven’t started it yet. The agency announced it was going to do it. But it hasn’t even gotten the survey.

Also, the federal government needs to coordinate with state and local agencies. The federal government and states and localities need to do a better job of tracking the grant monies. There need to be improvements in their ability to coordinate spending and transparency of grants. And there must be coordination and cooperation between agencies and different levels of government.

How bad is the situation?
I think it’s urgent and incredibly critical that we fix this problem. It shouldn’t take 9/11 or Katrina or Rita to remind us of the criticality of the issue and the scope of the issue. We have lost enough lives already. This communication problem exists across America on routine issues. It shouldn’t take another national tragedy to remind us that this issue affects us all.