Report: Disaster communications subpar in U.S.

6 of 75 cities get top disaster rating

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Only six of 75 U.S. metropolitan areas won the highest grades for their emergency agencies‘ ability to communicate during a disaster, five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to a federal report obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.

The lowest scores went to Chicago; Cleveland; Baton Rouge, La.; Mandan, N.D.; and American Samoa. The report included large and small cities and their suburbs, along with U.S. territories.

It also said while cooperation among emergency workers is strong, "formalized governance (leadership and planning) across regions has lagged."

The study, conducted by the Homeland Security Department, was likely to add fuel to what looms as a battle in Congress this year. Democrats who take over the majority this week have promised to try fixing the problem emergency agencies have communicating with each other but have not said specifically what they will do, how much it will cost or how they will pay for it.

Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke would not comment on the report, saying only that in releasing it on Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff will "talk about nationwide assessments for interoperable communications."

In New York now, the report said, first responders were found to have well-established systems to communicate among each other — but not the best possible. Thirteen U.S. cities scored better than New York.

A separate report the Homeland Security Department released last month found that emergency workers from different agencies are capable of talking to each other in two-thirds of 6,800 U.S. communities surveyed.

In the study to be released on Wednesday, communities were judged in three categories: operating procedures in place, use of communications systems and how effectively local governments have coordinated in preparation for a disaster.

Nineteen percent got the top grade for their plans for coordinating during a disaster and 8 percent received the worst; and 21 percent got the best mark for how well they use their communications equipment while 4 percent got the bottom rating.

Los Angeles got advanced grades in procedures and use of emergency communications systems and a well-developed grade in coordination of governance.

San Francisco, by comparison, received intermediate grades in governance and procedures, and a well-developed grade in use of systems.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, $2.9 billion in federal grant money has been distributed to state and local first responders for the improvement of their emergency communications systems.

Congress has ordered that the television broadcast industry vacate a portion of the radio spectrum to make it available for public safety communications. Lawmakers have also created a new office at the Homeland Security Department to oversee the issue, though they have yet to provide money for it.

The areas with the six best scores were judged advanced in all three categories. The cities with the lowest grades had reached the early implementation stage for only one category, and intermediate levels for the other two categories.

Chicago, Cleveland and Baton Rouge, for example, were judged to have accomplished the early stage of government coordination. Mandan, N.D., and the territory of American Samoa were both found to have gotten to the early stage of their actual usage of interoperable emergency communications and rated intermediate in governance and procedures.

The Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications took issue with the report‘s methodology and findings.

"We strongly disagree with the results of this study, and feel that the parameters of the study were inconsistent and limited," the statement said." In some instances, the scorecard evaluated urban areas or regions that contain a small number of independent jurisdictions and compared them with urban areas or regions containing significantly higher numbers of independent jurisdictions — an apples to oranges comparison across the board."

The statement said that in 2006, Chertoff described the city‘s Operations Center, which is responsible for communications among various agencies and jurisdictions, "as a great model for the country."

Tammy Lapp, the emergency coordinator for Mandan and Morton County, N.D., said she was not surprised by the low ranking.

"We knew with our limited funds, we were going to fall short," she said.


Associated Press writer Beverley Lumpkin contributed to this report.


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