Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, I’m Ed Wilson, Fire Chief for the City of Portland, Oregon. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Committee.
Two weeks after the 9-11 attacks on our nation, City of Portland Mayor Vera Katz directed me to join with our partners in public safety in our region, to determine our state of preparedness for a terrorist attack, and conduct a needs assessment. On behalf of all emergency responders in major cities across the United States, who undoubtedly undertook similar processes, I am here to testify about our findings and briefly outline what we would do with additional funding to increase our readiness.
Like many large cities, we are on the right track with regards to planning for a mass casualty incident, and have been for many years. Most large cities have functional plans in place, and well-trained responders on all levels. I can say from personal experience that, in Portland, we have also developed a phenomenal network of relationships to facilitate a coordinated effort when we will need it most.
Many large cities take an all-hazard plan approach, which includes hazardous materials incidents, natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes, and of course, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. It doesn’t really matter what causes the emergency; the response to help citizens is very much the same.
Since 9-11, however, we have focused on a few key areas to improve our plans in case the unthinkable happens… a terrorist attack in our hometown.
As large cities in the United States, we have numerous factors that put our citizens at risk. A most obvious issue, as we learned from the World Trade Center attacks, and earlier from the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, is the sheer number of people who populate large cities. Higher concentrations of people means more potential loss of life.
Metropolitan areas are also more vulnerable to hazardous materials incidents because of the industrial activity that is an important part of our economy.
In addition, we have larger and more complex infrastructures, such as huge water systems, extensive communication networks, bridges, and tall buildings. And of course many of America’s most visible landmarks, such as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, are located in big cities. All of these increase the vulnerability of metropolitan areas.
That’s why metropolitan areas such as Portland are in need of increased resources to keep our homeland safe. As I mentioned, Portland Fire & Rescue worked with our regional partners in public safety to determine where we stand in terrorism preparedness. I’m sure our findings are very similar to what other major cities are experiencing. We found four areas where we can improve:
1. Equipment and Training: We recommend increasing the supply of protective equipment for all emergency responders, including law enforcement personnel. Decontamination equipment at the hospitals would add another layer of protection as well. In addition, Incident Command System Training at the executive level will enhance any major City’s ability to provide leadership during a terrorist or any disaster incident.
2. Communication: We found room to improve the redundancy and the interoperability of our communication systems. While local agencies have mechanisms in place to communicate with each other, these plans may quickly splinter when state and federal agencies arrive on the scene. This lack of interoperability was starkly evident during the response to the terrorist attack at the Pentagon on September 11th.
Information dissemination is another significant communication issue that we need to address. Clear, timely, and accurate information needs to flow from the Federal government to the states, counties, and local governments. Relevant information needs to be shared with first responders such as Fire and Emergency Medical Service and with others such as public works and emergency managers.
3. Building Security: Portland, like many other cities in this free country of ours, is very open. To protect our citizens, we are considering enhancing security in our buildings, by adding systems that can be accelerated as needed.
4. Recovery: To improve continuity of government after a terrorist incident, we will develop a comprehensive recovery plan. First steps include a business risk assessment and a mainframe recovery study.
Will the First Responder Initiative help major cities across the country address these types of issues? Absolutely. But there’s another strength in the proposed Initiative. It would support programs that develop or build upon existing mutual aid agreements. For example, in the Portland metropolitan area, a regional group of emergency managers, involving five counties and two states, has worked since 1993 to coordinate regional response to natural hazards. We are now developing a regional request for anti-terrorism dollars.
We recently conducted a tabletop exercise to test our newly developed Metropolitan Medical Response System. It was a successful test drive of a federally funded plan, which will help emergency responders coordinate with local hospitals and public health in the event of a biological emergency. Ours is the first Metropolitan Medical Response Plan in the nation to have all of the 18 hospitals in the region participate.
One of our significant findings is that hospitals, as an extremely important resource in an actual mass casualty incident, would benefit from additional decontamination equipment.
Finally, I would note that according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, initial estimates show that local communities have spent more than $525 million since 9-11 for added security. Moreover, they anticipate that these cities will spend about $2.2 billion in 2002 to manage a burden unforeseen before 9-11. The need for Federal assistance is clear.
Noting that a ”simple and quick method for dispersing Federal assistance” is a stated objective of the First Responder Initiative, I would like to recommend a system similar to the Community Development Block Grant Program. This would serve as an excellent model for dispersing these funds. It would allow Federal funding to go directly to cities with a population greater than 50,000. The remaining funding would go directly to the states for distribution to jurisdictions with a population less than 50,000. This model already exists and has been used successfully and extensively. It would be easy to duplicate, and would avoid unnecessary delays in getting funding to local communities who need it now.
It will also be important that Federal funding to local communities allow as much flexibility as possible. As you know, different communities will identify different needs, levels of vulnerability, and solutions to these difficult problems. As a result, each community will need as much latitude as possible to achieve those solutions. We are glad to see funding flexibility included as one of the stated objectives of the President’s initiative.
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, thank you again for the opportunity to provide this information about how major cities in the United States would benefit from implementation of the First Responder Initiative. Its benefits would be immediate and long-term, making us safer from terrorist attacks and also enhancing our everyday response capabilities. In these tough economic times, we’re all working together to maximize resources. At the same time, we have new issues to address in our changed world. It’s my hope we can succeed at both to keep our country safe and livable. I will be happy to answer any questions that you may have.