Another View: We're from Washington'and we're here to learn

Martha Dorris

The lingering effects of Sept. 11, 2001, are still not fully recognized in many government quarters.

Those in the federal government charged with protecting the homeland realize, though, that they can benefit from lessons learned by front-line local officials.

This became clear at a recent meeting between federal and battle-tested New York City officials. The meeting was arranged by Frank McDonough of the General Services Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Communications, and Agostino Cangemi, general counsel of the city's Information Technology and Telecommunications Department.

The purpose of the visit was to learn from front-line city officials how feds can better prepare for the next terrorist attack and assist state and local governments in doing the same.

Among New York's recommendations:
  • Find potential sites for emergency response and family assistance centers in advance. New York moved its emergency response center three times because the first two just would not satisfy the huge demand. Warehouses work best. The basic characteristics for good space include easy access to cabling and lots of electrical power.

  • Review your year 2000 plans for clues to relationships and procedures that might be useful in an emergency. Distribute them again to the relevant people.

  • Keep community assistance centers family-friendly. Medical facilities should include social service and mental health professionals, and adequate treatment and gathering space for families. Have sufficient numbers of telephones, e-mail terminals, hospital beds, and dining and resting areas. New York co-located its community assistance center with its emergency operations center to share infrastructure.

  • Maintain physical and cybersecurity at the disaster site as well as at the command and assistance centers. After the attacks, New York and later, National Guard officials issued more than 10,000 credentials per day for press, public safety, medical and military people. A constantly changing perimeter required anyone who wanted access to present credentials.

  • Keep geographic information systems up to date. GIS let New York officials work despite the fact that no complete record existed of all the utilities under the World Trade Center.

  • Carefully track equipment inventories and resource distribution. Many vendors provided for free anything they could, including thousands of cell phones, radios and copies of software. It became difficult to determine what was donated, what was supposed to be paid for and where the material ended up. City officials are still working to resolve issues from the earliest moments of that day.

  • Establish a mutual aid restoration consortium agreement, such as New York had. This is a series of pre-existing agreements with vendors to perform whatever emergency tasks are required regardless of their competitive position.

  • Keep portals of Web sites simple and graphics-free for fast operation. New York modified a hurricane management system to let residents enter their addresses and determine available transportation, where deliveries could occur and the status of utility outages.

  • Have a backup site and locate it far from the main site.

By listening to their local counterparts, federal officials can have better systems in place should there be a next time.

Martha Dorris is deputy director of the Office of Intergovernmental Solutions at the General Services Administration.

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