Emergency Plan Eludes City OfficialsAlthough the federal government recommends that cities plan their responses to terrorism with inclusiveness and openness, Chicago’s emergency preparedness plan is known only to a few in city government, The Chicago Reporter has found.
Among those who haven’t been shown the plan are the city’s aldermen, firefighters and police officers.
“We do not discuss the particulars of our plan so as not to allow those who would harm us an additional way to create disorder,” Cortez Trotter, executive director of the Office of Emergency Communications, or 911 Center, said in a written statement. “Full disclosure of the plan might assist those who would thwart evacuation and rescue procedures.”
On Jan. 15, Trotter joined Mayor Richard M. Daley at a press conference introducing the city’s new Emergency Alert System, which, in the event of an emergency, will warn residents on radio and television broadcasts.
And Trotter recently cited plans for a computerized “Reverse 911” system, which can place hundreds of automatic telephone calls to residents in targeted areas to provide emergency information.
Still, after conducting dozens of interviews and reviewing budget documents, the Reporter also found that city and community leaders generally discount the threat of terrorist attacks to Chicago’s neighborhoods. Between 1998 and 2002, the city boosted its budgets every year for the 911 Center and Fire Department, two of the key agencies responsible for responding to emergencies.
But the Department of Public Health, the leader on handling bioterrorism, has taken cuts the last two years.
In its 279-page “State and Local Guide for All-Hazard Emergency Operations Planning,” updated in September 1996, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends that a wide range of community groups—such as local media, social service agencies, churches and labor unions—help local officials create their emergency response plans.
But the City of Chicago designed its own plan and kept it close to the vest.
“We don’t want anyone to see it,” said Larry Langford, public information officer for the Office of Emergency Communications. He called the secrecy “an unfortunate by-product” of emergency planning: “You want to reassure everyone, but you don’t want to give the plan away.”
Chicago isn’t alone in failing to follow FEMA’s advice. New York also keeps its emergency planning in the hands of city officials.
“We live in an atmosphere in which there are certain things we’re not going to share,” said Frank McCarton, deputy commissioner of public information at the Office of Emergency Management for the City of New York.
Still, Linda Sacia, FEMA’s public affairs officer for the region that includes Chicago, said it is important to make emergency response planning a community-wide effort.
“If you only have a handful of people involved, then you don’t have a complete plan,” she said. “In an emergency, you just don’t think of everything. But these groups in the community, like church groups, for example, are the ones who have contact with their people.”
The city’s approach concerns Pat Hill, a 16-year Chicago police officer and executive director of the African American Police League. Police officers have seen “a skeleton outline for emergencies,” she said. “I’m not saying to put the whole plan out there. But they need to release something on the public level, to direct people in advance as to what they should do, because people need to feel secure to be comfortable.”
The Reporter repeatedly asked city officials for copies or details of the plan. The requests were directed to Langford, who denied them. Tim Hadac, director of public information for the Department of Public Health, said he could not provide details on the department’s role in responding to terrorism.
The department “is one component of a larger administration, and the plan, reflecting resources and responsibilities of a number of different departments, is the larger administration’s plan,” Hadac wrote in an email. “It’s their call on if, when and how to release/discuss details of the plan. For the time being and doubtless for security-related reasons, CDPH and other departments have been directed to refrain from releasing/discussing details. We respect that. We abide by that.”
Rod Sierra, Daley’s deputy press secretary, referred questions to the Office of Emergency Communications. “They’re the ones who are pretty much in charge of the plan and can tell you what the details are, what’s secret and what’s not,” he said. “I can’t tell you what it is because I haven’t seen it.”
Neither Fire Commissioner James T. Joyce nor Frank Moriarty, chief of the department’s Local Emergency Planning Committee, returned phone calls.
“There is no reason they would talk to the press. … They are behind the scenes, functioning so that they can do their jobs,” said Molly Sullivan, director of public affairs for the Fire Department. Sullivan also declined to discuss the plan.
FEMA recommends that terrorism response planning include not just city officials and departments, but private volunteer organizations, area hospitals and emergency service agencies, educational administrators, professional organizations, church groups, and amateur radio clubs, said Sacia.
Its guide recommends this “team approach” because “the [emergency plan] is more likely to be used and followed if the tasked organizations have a sense of ownership, i.e., their views [are] considered and incorporated.” Also, this way “more knowledge and expertise are brought to bear on the planning effort” and “closer professional relationships among response and recovery organizations in the planning process should translate into better coordination and teamwork in emergencies.”
“When you’re talking about a terrorist attack, there is the criminal part of it, which is dealt with by law enforcement,” Sacia said. “But in emergency management, in responding to the consequences of the act, you want to be very inclusive, to have as much knowledge and contact with as many people and groups as possible. And this should happen beforehand.
“It doesn’t mean that everyone would necessarily have a copy of the plan,” Sacia added, “but it does mean that the community has input into the plan.”
Trotter said that the city’s planning includes “critical” private organizations that “have assigned positions in the Emergency Command Center,” including utility companies like ComEd and SBC Ameritech and nonprofit groups like the American Red Cross and the Illinois Hospital Association.
But several key leaders within Chicago’s City Council told the Reporter they haven’t seen the city’s plan.
The City Council received briefings on emergency planning during city budget hearings last fall. In October, Trotter and other officials from the 911 Center discussed the plan with the City Council’s Police and Fire Committee. Committee members gave different answers when asked how much information they received.
“What I’ve seen is that the 911 Center is the finest in the country,” said Alderman William M. Beavers, of the South Side 7th Ward, who chaired the committee until October. He said the aldermen at the meeting received “an overview” of the plan.
Alderman Leonard DeVille, of the 21st Ward on the South Side, would not say whether he had seen the plan, but emphasized that he thought the city was ready for an emergency. “I don’t think there’s a lot to do. Just do the steps we’ve done so far. Just do things to give alertness.”
But 12th Ward Alderman Ray Frias of the Southwest Side said he asked Trotter in the committee meeting if he could see the plan but “was told that it was being prepared.” He added, “I don’t think anyone can be adequately prepared for a terrorist attack. How can you prepare for the unknown?”
Thomas W. Murphy, the Southwest Side’s 18th Ward alderman, was initially concerned about the secrecy. “Trotter said there was a plan, but couldn’t give details. So whether there is a plan, whether it exists or not, I don’t know,” Murphy said in December. “I think elected officials should be in on it.”
In January, though, he said that he was given “additional information” and that he is now comfortable with the city’s preparedness. However, he still hasn’t seen the plan.
The city’s firefighters haven’t seen the plan, either, said Bill Kugelman, president of Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2.
“Cortez Trotter said, ‘I can’t show it to you,’” said Kugelman. “Nobody has seen the plan.”
Langford said rank-and-file firefighters only need to know their own roles in responding to emergencies. “They carry out orders,” he said. “The procedures they would be using are part of their regular training.”
Hill of the African American Police League said police officers are also briefed on portions of the plan. “But I haven’t examined [the city’s plan] since I came out of the police academy.” She added: “I’m sure that if other officers have seen it, they don’t remember.”
Pat Camden, deputy director of news affairs at the Chicago Police Department, said that providing the plan to the city’s 13,500 police officers, among the first responders in any citywide emergency, would compromise security.
“They will follow the directions of leadership that’s involved,” he said. “There are plans that are there, that are in writing, and the people that need to have them are aware of them.”
Assuming terrorist attacks would occur downtown, the plan doesn’t place as much emphasis on emergency response in the city’s neighborhoods, Langford said. The neighborhoods “are not targeted areas,” he said.
Preparing for terrorism is not a priority for neighborhood leaders who are busy contending with everyday crime and other issues, said Cheryl Chukwu, executive director of the Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety, which organizes residents to address public safety issues.
“People in the neighborhoods are not raising this as an issue right now,” she said.
The police department’s Chicago Alternative Police Strategy program isn’t involved in the city’s planning for terrorism, either, and CAPS deputy director Beth Ford said she doesn’t think it should be. CAPS partners police and community residents to prevent neighborhood crime.
The plan “is not something we need to see,” Ford said. But CAPS had been briefing neighborhood residents about watching for tainted mail and “suspicious activity,” she said.
Like other cities, Chicago has long prepared for blizzards, floods and other natural disasters. But discussions about terrorism response plans picked up in the late 1990s.
“The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing started a lot of it,” Sacia said. “Years before Sept. 11, cities began to plan and look at their all-hazard plans to see how they could be adapted for anti-terrorism planning.”
The budgets for three of the key city departments involved in emergency preparedness and response—the Office of Emergency Communications, the Fire Department and the Department of Public Health—are larger now than they were four years ago. The biggest increases came in 1999, as the city prepared for possible Y2K-related problems, and in the 2002 budget, which was proposed and approved unanimously in December.
At his January press conference, Daley announced that the city would spend an additional $76 million on security, including $28 million for lighting, fencing, gates and vehicle patrols at airports. The budget also adds 17 operators to the 911 Center and 25 positions to the Fire Department. It will also use $12 million to purchase new ambulances, fire engines, a rescue squad truck and other vehicles and equipment.
For more than two years, Chicago firefighters have worked without a contract while negotiating with the city. Among the sticking points is that the city wants the option to reduce, from five to four, the number of firefighters assigned daily to some of the city’s 160 engines and trucks, according to Kugelman.
“They talk about the preparedness and the planning, then they want to decimate our manning,” said Kugelman. He said he believes the city aims to make four firefighters per vehicle the standard so that retiring or resigning firefighters don’t have to be replaced.
City Law Department spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyle said that, since the last firefighter contract, the city has had the option of reducing the number of firefighters per vehicle as long as some high-seniority firefighters were paid double-time.
“What we want to do is increase the number of times we’re allowed to do that, without having to pay someone overtime,” she said. “But we’re not talking about a wholesale decrease in staffing.”
She added: “Emergency preparedness doesn’t necessarily mean having as many people as possible on a fire truck.”
Murphy said he was troubled by the city’s position. “If we’re going to be prepared for an emergency, it’s not advisable to be downsizing the fire department,” he said.
The 2002 budget also calls for the city to hire eight experts on bioterrorism at the Department of Public Health. But the department’s budget was cut slightly, by less than 1 percent, in 2001, and will be reduced by another 3 percent in 2002. Hadac, the department’s spokesman, said the latest cuts will come from several areas, including administration, mental health services and programs that fight violence, lead poisoning and AIDS.
“Part of the drawback (of trying to fight bioterrorism) is if you have a weak health department,” said Dr. Donald A. Henderson, former director of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. He was recently appointed director of the newly created Office of Public Health Preparedness in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “We’re not prepared to handle a mass of patients due to any cause, much less bioterrorism.”
Langford remains confident the city can handle a terrorist emergency, though he acknowledged that he has only seen “some aspects” of the plan.
“If you ask me how we are going to do it, I won’t tell you that, but I will tell you that we can do it,” he said. “I have been in on the planning sessions and I am satisfied.”