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Bring homeland security home to Illinois

By Stephen Meade

[SEPT. 11, 2002]  Organizers picked a bad week for last year’s meeting in Montana of state emergency management directors and key staff from around the country. Their choice: the week of Sept. 11, 2001.

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 that chaos.

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 budgets.


[to top of second column in this commentary]

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.

Those issues 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.

[Stephen Meade]

Stephen 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


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