A Day To Remember

Emergency management improves

2001 - 2006 -- 9/11 -- FIVE YEARS Maryland

September 11, 2006|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,Sun reporter

Five years ago, Frederick County police and firefighters couldn't use their radios to talk to their counterparts from Baltimore County if summoned to the same catastrophe. Their equipment was different and couldn't be linked.

Once on the scene, there were no clear rules about who should be in charge. And no one had access to a computerized inventory of the crews and trucks and medical units around the state that might be available to assist

Today, it's a different story.

Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, federal officials have pumped more than $400 million into Maryland to buy equipment, build radio towers, upgrade security at potential targets, retool the state's emergency management system and train first responders to prepare for potential catastrophes.

By most accounts, Maryland has done a good job of improving its emergency management programs. But nearly all agree that more needs to be done.

Michael Greenberger, a law school professor and director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, said that security measures should be strengthened at the port of Baltimore and the state's rail systems. But that would require more federal help, he said.

"The state does not have the resources to go out and buy equipment for the port of Baltimore, although it certainly recognizes the port's vulnerability," Greenberger said, referring to items such as high-tech video surveillance monitors and sophisticated sensors that can detect biological or chemical agents.

There have been some major changes to the state's emergency management systems over the past five years, state officials say.

Among them:

The state distributed $139 million in federal homeland security grant money to county and local governments. Those funds, among other things, helped Anne Arundel County acquire a mobile emergency command center and allowed Baltimore City to buy more police patrol boats and surveillance cameras to monitor the Inner Harbor and other potential targets of terrorists.

Staffing at the Maryland Emergency Management Agency in Reisterstown - the operational linchpin of the state's emergency response efforts - was beefed up and is now open around the clock. The agency also is conducting more frequent and extensive training exercises for emergency managers around the state.

A statewide hot line was set up so residents can report suspicious activity, such as someone videotaping a bridge or rail station. These reports are examined by federal, state and local law enforcement officials with access to other intelligence information and training in homeland security issues.

Frederic N. Smalkin, a retired federal judge who until recently was chairman of the Governor's Emergency Management Advisory Council, said that protecting Maryland residents from terrorist attacks and preparing for natural disasters or other catastrophes is a complex task.

"Emergency management is like playing catch with a 20-pound ball of Jell-O," Smalkin said. "It moves in a lot of different directions when you try to get hold of it."

But overall, he said, the state is "making excellent progress on every ground" in retooling its emergency management systems.

"Maryland is way ahead of the curve compared to other states," Smalkin said.

Greenberger also gives the state high marks for its homeland security efforts but said major weaknesses remain at the federal level.

For example, he said, the courts have made it clear that state and local government have little control over commercial rail service, limiting their ability to control risks.

"The purposeful explosion of a railcar carrying hazardous materials through a city would create havoc, and virtually no attention is paid to that," Greenberger said.

He said that although the port of Baltimore and commuter rail systems could be made safer with the installation of high-tech video monitors and sensors, federal officials haven't provided enough funding to buy them.

The Sun detailed numerous security problems at the port last year, including alarms that didn't work, damaged fencing, vast areas that are not covered by surveillance cameras and wooden decoy cameras posted in place of real cameras. The decoys were later removed.

To a large extent, Maryland has built on existing emergency management programs in preparing for the threat of potential terrorist activity.

The Maryland Emergency Management Agency was structured to deal primarily with natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes, but that has changed. Maryland has now developed a clear, military-style chain of command in dealing with regional catastrophes that other states are copying, Smalkin said.

John W. Droneberg III, the agency's director, said plans for responding to disaster were put to the test last year, and worked well, when several Maryland jurisdictions sent emergency crews to Louisiana to help with Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.

Dennis Schrader, the state's homeland security director, said there is no question that Maryland is better prepared to deal with a terrorist attack today than it was five years ago. "It's like night and day," he said.

greg.garland@baltsun.com

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