Peril and profit

Disaster Planning

Consultants such as Md.'s General Physics are cashing in

The Business Of 9/11

May 30, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

VALHALLA, N.Y. -- Scotty Hager delivers the bad news: 128 dead from a rare disease masquerading as the flu. Local hospitals overrun. Terrorism suspected. On the projection screen behind him, President Bush intones: "None of us will ever forget this day."

None of it happened. The fire, police and health officials listening intently had brought Hager from Maryland to stage a terrorism scenario so they could be prepared for the real thing.

For Westchester County, 20 miles north of Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, terrorism response plans and exercises are deadly serious work. For communities across the nation, they're a new and critical government job.

For consultants, they're a bonanza.

Companies have for years worked with cities and counties preparing emergency-management plans and training, but never before has there been such demand -- or so much federal money.

Though nearly every county has plans spelling out responses to acts of nature, only half took terrorism into account before 9/11.

"Every major municipal area across the country started looking for help," said Hager, state and local preparedness services director for General Physics Corp. of Elkridge. "The fire hose of grant money is on."

The federal government has either promised or awarded $13 billion for first responders and terrorism preparedness since 9/11 -- 11 times more than was spent the previous three fiscal years. A sizable chunk is for planning and training.

More money is becoming available, although local officials nationwide complain that these federal grants have been agonizingly slow to filter through the states to communities.

Companies that can write emergency plans, advise on equipment purchases and craft disaster exercises are finding themselves in the middle of a possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The lucrative business is causing consultants with related -- and occasionally no -- experience to leap into the emergency-management market to compete with established firms.

There aren't enough consultants to keep up with the demand. And the situation is aggravated by the fact that local governments are barred from swapping proprietary plans developed by their consultants.

"We previously had a lot of people asking for work [to be done] that didn't have the money to pay for it," said Steven C. Davis, principal of All Hands Consulting in Columbia, a 4-year-old consortium of more than 350 consultants.

"Now we have people saying, `I have $100,000 to do an exercise, and the contractors are all too busy to do it.' "

It's a "dramatic" change in the market, he said: "From my porthole, it looks like it's been a tenfold increase."

Communities have braced for attack from man and nature for decades, from fallout shelters and school air-raid drills of the Cold War to tornado-warning alarms that blast throughout the Midwest.

Though the terrorist attacks touched off a surge in emergency-management planning, the industry was already growing in the 1990s as states such as California grappled with increasingly expensive natural disasters, and businesses worried about Y2K meltdowns as 2000 approached.

General Physics, a large provider of training, engineering and technical services, expanded into local emergency management planning two years ago when it saw the potential.

The company already was running the Army's chemical agent disposal training center at Aberdeen Proving Ground and providing hazardous materials training to first responders nationwide, so it didn't seem much of a stretch.

"The principles are the same," Hager said. "You have assets; you want to protect the assets from any hazards."

So far the company has completed 22 disaster plans and is working on 11 more. It recently managed a terrorism exercise for the United Space Alliance and won a $15 million Department of Homeland Security contract to advise first responders on defensive equipment. Such homeland security services should account for at least a quarter of General Physics' business this year, Hager said.

`Tabletop' exercise

Last year, General Physics rewrote Westchester County's all-hazards plan. Two weeks ago, Hager headed north to Valhalla to run a "tabletop" exercise for the county and leaders from its five cities. The idea was to test their ability to respond to terrorism.

This does not feel theoretical in Westchester. More than 100 of the victims of the World Trade Center attacks lived in this northern New York City suburb on the Hudson River.

The high-profile county is home to nearly a million people -- including former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- and to a controversial nuclear power plant.

A 9/11 memorial will be unveiled in Valhalla next year.

"It's much more real for us because we've been affected by 9/11 and we'll continue to be affected for the rest of our lives," said John E. Jackson, deputy commissioner of the county's Department of Emergency Services. "It's changed our thinking."

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