Forum: Are We Prepared? Not Quite


Aug 27, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on August 27, 2006.

Nearly five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a year after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the Pittsburgh region and the rest of the United States have improved their ability to respond to emergencies. But more can and should be done.

National, state and regional strategies are needed to prevent terrorist attacks and other disasters when possible, and to limit the damage caused by such events when they occur. Developing these strategies now could save lives, property and money in the years ahead.

More than $72 million in federal aid has come to the Pittsburgh region since Sept. 11, 2001, to help first responders -- police, fire departments, hospitals, ambulance operators and others -- save lives if terrorists strike here. The federal aid has also been used to develop procedures to guide emergency response to other types of disasters, and to help protect critical infrastructure in the region. This is because equipment, training and planning designed to be used if terrorists attack can also be used to respond to natural disasters and other crises.

Already, equipment purchased to deal with terrorist strikes has been used to respond to the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan, provide support to those responding to the Quecreek mine disaster and augment security for the All-Star baseball game.

But despite progress that has been made so far, serious gaps in the overall emergency preparedness of our region remain. There are four gaps that are critical in the Pittsburgh area, and across the United States as well.

First, funding and other resources are being diverted from traditional law enforcement and emergency response activities to support homeland security missions. This means that police departments in our region and elsewhere must cut other items in their budgets to prepare for a terrorist attack. Eventually, this diversion of resources may come home to roost in the form of higher crime rates, slower response times and other erosions of community safety.

Second, emergency response agencies need to better prepare to work together after a terrorist attack or other emergency. Problems involving agencies unable to communicate with each other over different radio frequencies, having different ways of operating and being confused over which emergency response agency is in charge remain in the Pittsburgh region and nationally.

These problems all surfaced after the Sept. 11 attacks at the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon, and also in the response to Hurricane Katrina. Simulations or exercises are one frequent method by which leaders of different emergency response agencies work together to identify gaps in their ability to respond to incidents. More such exercises are needed, and action is required to close the gaps they expose.

Third, government spending and preparation continue to be focused on responding to terrorist attacks and other emergencies, rather than on preventing them or reducing their consequences. More needs to be done to organize the intelligence efforts of law enforcement agencies around the region and around the nation to prevent terrorist attacks. And more needs to be done to strengthen building codes, better evaluate the risk of natural hazards and increase the number of people and businesses buying insurance against flooding and other hazards.

Finally, the federal government does not yet have national readiness metrics and performance benchmarks established for emergency response to terrorist attacks and disasters.

These metrics are important to understand how federal support dollars should be allocated. Without being able to measure -- consistently and over time -- how ready a community is for the hazards it faces, government funding and other resources cannot be effectively allocated.

K. Jack Riley is associate director of the Infrastructure, Safety and Environment division of the Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization. He is based in Rand’s Pittsburgh office.

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