Metro areas must unite to prepare for disaster

November 25, 2001|By Neal Peirce

WASHINGTON - On Sept. 11, as the mammoth blaze triggered by a hijacked airliner engulfed a section of the Pentagon, Maryland fire companies that rushed to the scene tried to communicate with their counterparts from Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia.

But they couldn't connect because they were on different radio frequencies. And that's no unique occurrence: The same Tower of Airspace Babel occurred when the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City was blown up in 1995, and when murderous shooting broke out at Columbine High School near Denver in 1999.

Whether terrorism or some other disaster, it is glaringly obvious: Emergency personnel need to communicate.

America's thousands of "independent" local governments continue to act as if this were the 1950s and it's still OK to act in isolated fashion. Yet in an age of perils, the lack of basic communications could cause thousands of us to die unnecessarily.

A critical message from Sept. 11: It's time we find ways to galvanize our metropolitan, region-wide responses to major threats.

And it is not just radio frequencies. It is the capacity to identify dangerous chemicals or bio-agents released into the air or water supplies. It's deciding which units get equipped with biochemical masks or suits, antidote kits for nerve agents, supplies of Cipro and command buses (roughly $500,000 each) to rush to disaster scenes. It's defense strategies for reservoirs, power plants, chemical factories, skyscrapers, airports, water supplies and computer networks.

Small wonder that Anthony Williams, the mayor of Washington - "a target-rich environment," as he puts it, with facilities ranging from the Capitol and White House to the nearby Pentagon and CIA headquarters - finds intergovernmental cooperation the top anti-terrorism challenge.

Arnold Howitt of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government defines terrorism preparedness as perhaps the toughest urban management challenge of our time, on a par with the international war on terrorism.

How does domestic terrorism preparedness connect our national aspirations with state leadership and then coordination in our metro regions? The job is tough for states alone. Their officials often sit in capitals up to hundreds of miles from a sudden terrorist incident. And it's tough for localities. Central cities or strong counties may have skilled "first responder" teams compared with rather primitive emergency management capacity in smaller cities.

Then there's the sticker shock of sophisticated emergency management devices, from those command buses to protective suits to new radio equipment. Post-Sept. 11 wish lists in the Washington area alone total $2 billion. Even with federal help, localities will be heavily stressed. Regional plans to share responsibilities and costs would save huge sums.

Joint training, investment and coordinated regional plans - how do we get there? One idea, nurtured by the recently formed Alliance for Regional Stewardship and such figures as Camille Barnett, a former city manager of Washington and Austin, Texas, is for a series of terrorism-preparedness summits in the country's 300-plus metro regions.

Tom Ridge and his Office of Homeland Security could urge such summits, possibly providing seed funding for them. Ideally, these summits would include not just fire, police and health officials but mayors, county executives and officials from smaller cities. They would develop approaches jointly with businesses, nonprofits and citizen groups in each region.

And the effort shouldn't bypass the states. The 50 governors should regard regions as the logical action-delivery zones for their states' terrorism preparedness and disaster planning. The governors - 36 of whom have now set up anti-terrorism offices or task forces, according to Stateline.org - could demonstrate commitment and interest by urging regional summits, preferably taking part in them personally.

There is no guarantee that all regional summits would lead to coherent, strong plans. But with local politicos and civic leaders wrestling with problems of the new terrorist era, debating with visiting state and federal officials and exposing the issues and potential solutions to media attention, the concept of joint regional responsibility for homeland security would inevitably get a big boost.

Neal Peirce is a syndicated columnist. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

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