New Mayors 183-City Survey: More Action Needed on Emergency Preparedness
By Ed Somers and Jonathan Tang, USCM Intern
August 7, 2006
During a media forum held at the National Press Club in Washington (DC) July 26, The United States Conference of Mayors released a major new emergency preparedness/homeland security survey, which found that more action is needed on key issues such as interoperable communications, evacuation planning, and pandemic flu preparedness.
Released as the nation approaches the five-year anniversary of September 11 and one-year anniversary of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, the survey gave mayors an opportunity to highlight key challenges, levels of improvement, and areas where additional assistance is still needed.
Responses were received from 183 cities representing 38 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and included cities ranging in population from 30,000 to New York City. In addition, responses were broken down by size, placing cities in three different population categories.
The survey revealed a number of key findings:
- 80 percent of cities felt they had not received sufficient funding from the federal government to allow their first responders to talk with one another.
- While 73 percent of the cities with populations over 300,000 had recently created or updated an evacuation plan, only 56 percent of cities on average had done so.
- 72 percent of all cities had not been assigned a Principal Federal Official to work with them in the event of a disaster. However, when the largest cities were surveyed, 60 percent responded yes.
- Though 69 percent of cities had been contacted by federal or state governments to discuss possible pandemic flu outbreaks, only 30 percent of cities felt they were prepared to handle such an outbreak on their own for the first few days (and possibly weeks), before federal assistance would be made available.
At the National Press Club, a panel of mayors headed by Conference President Dearborn Mayor Michael A. Guido held a media forum to discuss the findings, and what must be done to improve levels of preparedness.
Joined by Conference Vice President Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer, Elizabeth (NJ) Mayor J. Christian Bollwage, Homeland Security Task Force Co-Chairs Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and Sugar Land (TX) Mayor David G. Wallace, Philadelphia Mayor John Street, and Conference Executive Director Tom Cochran, Guido said, “The nation’s mayors continue to focus on the need to strengthen emergency preparedness and homeland security… This new survey shows we must further strengthen our partnership with the federal government.”
While this partnership between local and federal government is crucial to the protection of America’s cities, the two partners have not always seen eye to eye. Bollwage spoke of his concerns, citing a shift in focus from local law enforcement programs, such as COPS and the local block grant, to “a homeland security pot, which has then become competitive… and that’s the movement here that the mayors have become deeply concerned about.”
Wallace’s city of Sugar Land sheltered hurricane victims in the wake of Katrina, before Hurricane Rita forced refugees and residents of Sugar Land alike to head even further inland. Wallace voiced serious concerns over the results of the survey, especially the fact that “… 44 percent of cities have not created or updated their evacuation plans.”
Mayors Take the Lead
Despite these concerns, mayors have made it clear that they are willing to take the initiative to make their cities and their citizens safer.
One month following the terrorist attacks of September 11, the leadership of the Conference of Mayors held an emergency homeland security summit in Washington (DC), where mayors, police, fire, and emergency management officials drafted the National Action Plan for Safety and Security in America’s Cities. Following the hurricanes of 2005, the plan was updated and presented to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Congress.
Key areas covered in the updated plan include: 1) Fixing FEMA; 2) Military Involvement in Disaster Response and Recovery; 3) Communications Interoperability; 4) Enhanced Transportation Security; and 5) First Responder Funding.
During the forum, O’Malley discussed efforts put together by mayors to form city-to-city mutual aid agreements, a result of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina. These agreements would see neighboring cities providing immediate assistance to cities in need, without waiting for federal aid, in the event of another major disaster. “We have an obligation to one another, so that if something happens, we send the assets and the resources,” O’Malley said
Street’s city also created Philadelphia’s Emergency Preparedness Review Committee, which produced a report of 200 recommendations for cities and regions in the event of a disaster. Similar to the mutual aid agreements, this report focused on cities within a tri'state area and their ability “… to communicate, to share resources, and to be prepared to respond to an emergency,” Street said. Street added that he took some criticism for commissioning a report that found Philadelphia was not where it needed to be on preparedness, but stressed that mayors cannot afford to be complacent and must first and foremost work to protect the public. However, he said that only through strong regional, state, inter'state and national cooperation can a major metro area truly reach a level of adequate preparedness.
“As mayors, we’re the ones on the front lines,” said Palmer, whose city of Trenton has had three major floods in the past 18 months. “As mayors, we’re going to lead.”
The complete survey and video of the press forum can be accessed at usmayors.org.