Interview with William C. “Bill” Burke
William C. “Bill” Burke has served as director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency since 2003, coordinating incident response while building terrorism preparedness alongside Illinois Homeland Security and the state’s Terrorism Task Force. Prior to that, Burke served as a regional administrator for the U.S. General Services Administration and Inspector General of the Illinois Department of Military Affairs. An Army veteran of the Vietnam War, Burke received the Bronze Star and Army Commendation Medal. (His remarks have been edited to accommodate space limitations. Read the full interview.)
What are your responsibilities? What’s a typical day or week like?
I wouldn’t say “typical” because it varies from day to day, but I’m most importantly dealing with follow-up on coordinating issues. I’m with our state’s bioterrorism preparedness group, which is led by the state Department of Public Health, but I try to bring some executive emergency management to monitor what direction they’re growing in. This morning we had a briefing of all the agencies in our SEOC (State Emergency Operations Center) as to their activities over the last month. We’re a liaison agency, really a planning agency.
I’m also the current president of CUSEC (Central United States Earthquake Consortium), so I’m very heavily involved in a national catastrophic planning initiative that was initiated by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) to specifically address the New Madrid fault (a 150-mile fault system that crosses four states).
Can you describe cusec?
CUSEC is an eight-state group that consists of Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Illinois, and Indiana. We’ve been meeting for years around the issue of a potential earthquake along the New Madrid Fault. But just last year FEMA began focusing on that fault. Here in Illinois, I have an earthquake coordinator, and even though we’d been doing all-hazards preparedness, we already had an earthquake-specific annex.
We have about 25 counties in southern Illinois that potentially could be heavily impacted by a New Madrid earthquake. Anything over a 5.0, and certainly a 6.0 or 7.0, would impact those areas potentially seriously. So we’re starting to look at and work with the local communities on putting together earthquake annexes and having them understand some of the potential impacts.
Illinois has mutual-aid agreements both between its towns and counties, and with other states. How have the agreements worked in emergencies?
After Hurricane Katrina, which was a big disaster, we sent, all told, about 3,000 to 3,500 personnel. We sent three different two-week rotations of 900 firefighters, and 200 pieces of equipment.
Because we’ve trained together and exercised together, they were able to put together and plan the proper command structure to function; even though they were from different organizations, they had common equipment, common training.
Within Illinois, take the (December 2004) Chicago LaSalle Bank fire—the city of Chicago, which has a very large fire department, was so heavily engaged that they activated their mutual-aid agreements to have equipment brought in from 20 outside fire departments; those firefighters occupied Chicago fire stations, and ended up fighting three fires for the city of Chicago.
Our emergency-response capability is regionally based. The capability that’s in southern Illinois is the same capability that exists regionally, say, in the city of Chicago, or in other population centers so that wherever an event occurs, we’re not ignoring any part of the state.
How does your budget break down? What would you do if you had more funding?
The Homeland Security money has been in recent years kind of shrinking, but Illinois has done okay. Since it’s a competitive process, we have to feel good that much of the criteria—regionalization, tiering, real capability that aligns with the federal government’s target capability—match what we’ve been doing here in Illinois.
We try to prioritize spending based on what will provide the best bang for the buck. The fire department has needs, the police department has needs—and in some cases, there can be crossover benefits for both of them, as with communications. We let the people who really know fire, the people who really know law enforcement, the people who really know public health—be the ones who input how money in their areas should be spent.
What is the state doing to improve communications interoperability?
We have about 10 command suites around the state that “translate” so that there are common communications for people who are plugged in. We have also given all the first-response agencies, including police, fire, and public health departments, at least one (Motorola) STARCOM 21 800 MHz radio, so if all other communications failed, they could at least communicate with the SEOC. EMnet, which is a satellite-based messaging system, gives us another method for communications.
Is the state working with the private sector to share intelligence, develop preparedness strategies, or develop resilience? If so, how?
We have a Private Sector Committee, and we are reaching out now to some of the bigger organizations and corporations in the state, because for something like pandemic flu, they’re going to be affected. They’re interested in our planning, and we’re interested in what they’re doing in-house, because they have resources.
The financial sector in Chicago has a group called ChicagoFIRST (Chicago Financial Services Industry Coalition for Business Continuity). If the Chicago Board Options Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade were to go down, it would cause real economic chaos throughout the world. So ChicagoFirst has a group liaising with us about things like credentialing their people—the continuing operations staff, the critical operations staff. It’s not a lot of people, but the ones that might need to get back in the building. We need to know who they are. We may also help them transition into backup operations.
Can you share a lesson from a recent drill?
The drill that most impacted me was the pandemic flu exercise from May of last year. We have a large body of state agencies that work with us regularly, but the pandemic flu brought to the forefront those agencies that we don’t work with on a regular basis, such as the Board of Education.
In connection with this exercise, we brought them into consultation with us as to how we operate. There are certain recommendations that we need from them so that we won’t be forcing decisions on them. They were able to give us the “real world” picture of what they were likely to do in those situations.
What is your agency’s top goal for the coming year?
We’ve had several drills, mainly on hurricanes at the beginning of the hurricane season, and we’ve had several on pandemics. Those are megadisasters. One of the things we need to do is to bring our mass-shelter capability up to where we think it should be. I’m working with FEMA and some surrounding states on that. We are looking at scenarios such as: What if we send 100,000 to 200,000 people to Wisconsin, Indiana, or Missouri?
While we’ve thought about taking care of people within our own state, we hadn’t really put together the plan for sending people across state lines. FEMA took the lead on that issue, and now we are looking at that.
We know that if we identify our facilities, and have the capability to staff them and feed people and provide logistics, we’ll mitigate some of the impact on us. But what’s our mechanism for providing information back to other states about where their people are?
Can we give those people a place to sleep that’s comfortable, can we give them medical care, and can we feed them? Do we have a system to let their relatives know where they are? We’ve got to consider all those things to be prepared for a major disaster.