For Ed Jacoby, director of the New York
State Emergency Management Office, it meant a quick trip home on an
F-16 combat jet. The other directors were pretty much stranded in
Montana, cell phone batteries fading, wondering whether their states
too might suffer a terrorist attack as they sat in what must have
seemed America’s remotest location.
The war on terrorism places key
elements of the nation’s defense in the hands of people like Jacoby.
His counterparts in Illinois include people like Matt Bettenhausen,
state homeland security director; Mike Chamness, director of the
Illinois Emergency Management Agency; and Cortez Trotter, Mayor
Daley’s point man for disaster response. If an attack occurs and
local police, fire and emergency medical personnel rush to the
scene, it is city and state emergency managers who marshal backup
support from such sources as neighboring fire departments, state
police, the National Guard and state public health authorities.
Almost by definition, disaster scenes
turn chaotic, not only from the direct cause of the damage — be it
terrorist or tornado — but in the aftermath, with the sudden flood
of emergency response personnel, volunteers and donations from
surrounding areas. State and local emergency managers bring order to
It was awkward, to say the least, to
have senior leadership of America’s homeland defense meeting in
Montana when America was attacked. But that situation illustrates
some important points about the new kind of war Americans have been
forced to wage.
Not since the Civil War have states
assumed significant responsibility for defending America on our own
soil. Back then, defense was organized around state militias. Today,
states have largely ceded that defense authority to federal military
and intelligence agencies, lavishly funded to develop the newest
technologies and recruit the best and brightest talent. Until a year
ago, domestic security was equated almost entirely with fighting
crime and preparing for floods, earthquakes and the like.
Illinois is an interesting exception
because Gov. George Ryan showed unusual prescience. Sixteen months
before Sept. 11, Ryan created the Illinois Terrorism Task Force.
Terrorist disaster planning and exercises were already under way.
Likewise, Mayor Daley long ago invested substantially in a new
emergency communications center, routinely visited by foreign
dignitaries looking for the state of the art in emergency response.
But in Illinois and other states
nationwide, state emergency preparedness has always been a low
budget priority, and things have barely improved since Sept. 11. The
economic slowdown had an especially damaging effect on state
[to top of second column in
Fully nine months after Sept. 11, South
Carolina’s newly appointed domestic security director, a retired
Army general, told the New York Times that state homeland security
authorities "are committed but they are broke."
"All of us homeland security advisers
talk to each other, and all of us are strapped," he said.
Technology has given America’s armed
forces overwhelming advantages over enemies overseas. Think of
night-vision goggles, laser-guided bombs and pilotless aircraft.
Here in our backyard, however, technologies that many of us in the
private sector take for granted are wistfully only dreamed of by
emergency management professionals.
Last spring, Illinois safety officials
asked the National Emergency Management Association to survey the 50
state emergency management agencies to gauge their use of the
Internet as a communications and management tool. A major role of
emergency managers is coordination and communication with other
agencies and levels of government. They must also tell the public
what to do in an emergency and help coordinate volunteers and
donations. The Internet seems a logical — indeed invaluable — tool
for that kind of information management.
The survey’s findings? Though they
generally can e-mail one another individually, there was little or
no actual online capability to manage emergency response assets such
as fire hose, syringes, blood donors, bottled water, emergency
medical personnel, volunteers, donated goods or antibiotics.
That is only one application of defense
technology that is underutilized. State and local emergency
management agencies — too often noticed only after a disaster — have
long suffered from benign neglect.
Congress this month wrestles with the
intricacies of how a new federal Department of Homeland Security
will be structured. Limitless congressional attention is focused on
the new department’s hiring policies and whether agencies such as
the Coast Guard belong under its wing.
are important. But if a disaster strikes Springfield, it will be
Springfield firefighters, police, medical technicians and emergency
managers who will be the heroes of our own homeland’s security.
Let’s give them the tools so they can do their jobs.
Meade is chief executive officer of 2Xchange, a Chicago company
whose products include software for state and local emergency
response. His e-mail address is