Uneven Disaster Preparations

As Washington warns of more "chatter" about possible terrorist attacks on US soil this summer, its efforts to include Americans in helping locate suspects should increase public vigilance.

What should also elevate concern are the recent testimony and interim findings by the 9/11 commission that reveal how cities are (and are not) prepared for possible attacks.

Here's one big problem: Last week's hearings offered evidence that New York City police and fire agencies still aren't communicating effectively, nearly three years after Sept. 11.

Just days before the commission's hearings, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a new emergency response system to improve coordination between police and fire officials. Unfortunately, the two groups have argued for too long over who should be in control of which type of disaster situation. One 9/11 commissioner called the turf battles "scandalous."

The city's plan is based on a national model developed by the Homeland Security Department, but is still vague on how departments will coordinate in different scenarios, including chemical and radiological attacks. Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton calls the plan a "prescription for confusion." He suggested that a single director of public safety be created, with emergency directors for each sector of the city.

That idea may make sense. The commission's report revealed a marked contrast between the ability of New York and Washington, D.C., to quickly and effectively communicate in a disaster situation. Though the two areas reacted on a far different scale that terrible day, the city of Arlington, Va. (where the Pentagon is located), got high marks for coordinating with the District of Columbia and the adjoining Maryland and Virginia governments after the Pentagon was attacked.

Key to that was the fact that one person was calling the shots.

The commission's report also found that the fire department was able to respond well because it had a formalized management structure in place. And perhaps most important - that strong, trusting, first-name-basis relationships among first responders helped to successfully address the tragedy.

Such lessons obviously need learning elsewhere, especially when the basics of knowing who's in charge, along with when and how to communicate, still seem so elusive.

Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge said earlier this year that by the end of 2004, "most first responders will have a way to communicate" with one another in a crisis.

Clearly enough time has passed since 9/11 to better meet that urgent challenge.

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