THE MAGAZINE

Urban Area Perspective - Baltimore

By Joseph Straw
 
Q. How does the region assess risk comparatively between jurisdictions and assets?
 
A. There are scientific tools to assess risk, but there are also guidelines that you’re faced with in your jurisdiction. Let’s say your grant guidance that says you’re required to spend 25 percent of your funds to address IED threats. Hopefully, that guideline is based on some sort of risk assessment. So we wouldn’t have to do a risk assessment on allocating those funds.
 
For the remaining funds, each of the UASI’s jurisdictions uses a different assessment tool. Most of them are based on a government security document or a strategic plan. Like I said before, I think our biggest challenge is to improve that. I’m not necessarily sure it has to be uniform, but it needs to be integrated, and there needs to be some sort of way to extract out common things from each of those assessments. So at this point I would say that the way we do it is to take all the information that’s at hand, discuss it, and then basically determine what risks we’re going to specifically buy down.
 
Currently we’re re-writing the regional strategy. And we’ve done it twice so far. This will be the third revision, and we’re really hoping we can incorporate a more unified approach to those risk management tools.
 
Q. What is your region’s greatest success since 9-11?
 
A. There’s no doubt about it that those individuals who knocked down those buildings had no idea of American resolve and our ability to take bad and turn it into good. And the level of coordination that is happening to prepare for the worst helps us in what we do every day. And that’s the single biggest thing I’ve seen since 9-11. If somebody’s mother is sick and they dial 911, we have better radios to respond with. Or, if there’s an accident on the Baltimore Beltway and your kids are in it, we have better equipment to deal with that. And we know how to work with each other across jurisdictional boundaries.
 
And I think that’s helped us in every area of homeland security. I mean look at the level of coordination on the California wildfires the last few years. And although the initial response to Katrina was not stellar by any means, once the cavalry rode in, you saw a level of coordination that was unprecedented. And I think that’s really the result of 9-11. I don’t think that group of evil individuals who carried out that attack anticipated, and I don’t think anybody could anticipate, how that has enabled us to respond to the regular things on a daily basis.
 
What I always try to tell people now is that it’s no longer about the money. The money’s not that much. The money I get locally is about $2 million each year, and the money that I get regionally is $10 million. But if you look at the amount of effort and resources that is committed to just deciding what to spend those funds, it’s not proportionate. For example, we have a hazmat subcommittee that figures out what they want to request to bridge their gaps, but they also train together, they talk to each other, they interact, they develop exercises together. And we never did that eight years ago. Before 9-11 you might see another county at a meeting, but you had no idea what was going on behind the scenes with their capabilities. And to me that’s where we’re making true progress because everybody’s going in one direction.
 
Q. Is fiscal sustainability a challenge given cuts in grants and the recession? If so, how are you adjusting?
 
A. I’m not hyper-critical of the reduction in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grants, because I don’t think it’s been that much. So my assessment is that the DHS money, although it’s fluctuated somewhat, has been relatively consistent. The problem that in my opinion the current fiscal crisis has delivered, which is a great challenge, is that we’re having a hard time maintaining baseline capabilities at the local level in fire departments and police departments. DHS expects each of the jurisdictions to have a certain floor capacity, meaning, if you don’t have a fire department, they’re not going to buy you a fire department. There are certain things they expect to be in place in each jurisdiction. And I see those things being chipped away at. So in cities you might have had 30 fire companies and then you go down to 28. Well that’s going to affect your overall response to any hazard. Yet we can’t fund those things with DHS money. That’s what worries me.
 
Q. How would you characterize your relationship with your federal partners? What would you change, if anything?
 
A. To give you an example, each year I go to a national UASI conference, and it’s not organized by the federal government but by a group of individuals who wanted to improve UASIs all over the country. We exchange ideas, best practices, whatever. In the 2004-2005 timeframe, if you worked for DHS or the federal government, you didn’t announce it at this conference. There was an unbelievable level of animosity, because of unclear grant guidance, inconsistencies, and there didn’t seem like a whole lot of rhyme or reason to the grant awards. This year’s UASI conference was 100 times different. And I think a lot of it is because DHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have matured as agencies and because there is clear direction. National priorities have been set, and it’s not a mountain that can’t be climbed.
 
Mayor Sheila Dixon moved my office from the fire department, and made it so that the emergency manager answers directly to her. And so although I’m located in the fire department for policy direction and other things, I answer directly to City Hall. Which gives me the ability to kind of coordinate all of the stakeholders I have to without being, you know, bullied so to speak.
 
As mayor, Gov. O’Malley was really was instrumental in us building the systems that we have in place along with retired Fire Chief Goodwin. He understands that the locals will make the best decisions on how to defend the homeland, ultimately. And so when he became the governor, he made the decision that kind of passed through the majority of the holdback—the state holdback—to the locals, and really helped the locals to better prepare by strengthening emergency management in the state. So now what we have is kind of a flawless relationship with [DHS Secretary] Janet Napolitano and the federal government, with Gov. O’Malley, who has a great relationship with my mayor, who has kind of promulgated my office to be able to get the things done necessarily from the homeland security perspective. So for me it’s never been more opportune to get stuff done, but it hasn’t always been like that. At the time the governor was the mayor, there was a governor in office who wasn’t necessarily conducive to the things that we were trying to accomplish.
 
Q. Does your office engage the private sector? If so, how?
 
A. We have three structures responsible for that do that. One the Homeland Security Preparedness Committee (HSPC), and that structure has a whole set of tasks, but we meet monthly with all the city agencies, with the deputy mayor, and we tackle a very robust agenda of preparedness issues, and it’s through that forum that we allocate the local homeland security funds within the city. And then that committee has about 13 functional subcommittees.
 
In addition to that Mayor Dixon is the mayor of the core city in the UASI, and she appointed me the chair of the Baltimore Urban Area Working Group, and that allocates the regional UASI funds, and then of course on every subcommittee I have people from Baltimore go and represent us to fight for their priorities as well. So those two are the main governance structures and there’s different offshoots of that—like the HSPC has a Security Council that answers directly to the mayor that she can convene at any time for policy advice on homeland security issues. There’s private representation on the Security Council, through Baltimore’s Downtown Partnership, and there’s wider private sector representation on the HSPC.
 
Where I do a lot of my interaction with the private sector is through the local chapter of the Association of Contingency Planners, but mostly through the local emergency planning commissions. We have an e-mail list of between 500 and 700 stakeholders, and we have quarterly meetings where we cover preparedness topics in a format where information can be exchanged. At those meetings the first half hour is networking. During the second portion is normally we have three or four panel discussions that are open for questions, and we discuss any legislative affecting preparedness in the area. That’s really one-stop shopping where I get my face time with the private sector in the communities.
 
In addition to that, I’m always reviewing emergency operations plans. We call our private sector into incident command a lot. When we had the water main break we had reps from the Downtown Partnership, and South Baltimore Industrial Mutual Aid Plan, which is a regional chemical sector consortium.
 
On the preparedness end, I interact with CERTs and the American Red Cross. Actually we just had a conference in Baltimore on a topic called meta-leadership. It was led by a guy from Harvard who comes in with all of these different stakeholders in the room, and over the course of the day we identified “gaps,” “gives,” and “gets.” And we tried to marry the “gives” and the “gets” to fill the gaps. One of the things I think we found is that we really didn’t have the same problems that they reported in other jurisdictions where it was difficult to just get people in the room who didn’t know each other.
 
Baltimore is referred to in a jovial way as “Smaltimore.” It’s a community settled by immigrants who, you know, resided in most of the same neighborhoods for years. And it’s a big city but it’s a small city in the sense that most of the people involved in government interact on other situations, so it works out pretty well.
 
Q. Have any recent incidents or exercises produced valuable lessons?
 
A. Well this spring a 40-inch main broke in Center City. Not only did it paralyze traffic but it also knocked out the water to the downtown business district. We had planned a bunch of stuff regarding whether we should close buildings based on whether they have water from a fire prevention standpoint. But one of the unexpected lessons came from a public health standpoint and informed our decision to close city government that day. For two weeks prior Mayor Dixon has been emphasizing everybody the importance of hand washing on account of H1N1 flu. So when it came time to make that operational decision to close city government it was an easy one.
 
It’s always amazing in those big incidents how much it really affects people. For instance, there was a restaurant that was hosting a private party. And you could tell they really needed to have it, whether it was the economy or the guest was important. And so the guy came up to command and he was like, “I just need to know, when am I going to be back in business?” And we were able to give him the timeframe and likelihood. There are just so many stakeholders for whom you can underestimate the impact and how important it is. That day T. Rowe Price and Legg Mason transferred a lot of their data to other locations. And that comes with a cost. I’m not going to tell them what they should do. I’ll give them the best situational report as to what’s going on. And there are two things that are my responsibility. One is to develop that report, and two to communicate it. The rest is up to them, unless it’s life or limb, and then we say, “You’ve got to get out of this building," or "You’ve got to do this.”
 
Q. What are your office’s main goals for the new year?

A. Well we’re rewriting our emergency operations plan for the city so I would say that’s a major goal, especially to incorporate risk management throughout our program. Another major goal is to continue to navigate through these difficult economic times. And then to do everything we can to continue to strengthen the regional collaboration with all the stakeholders. There’s personnel turnover, but you’ve just got to keep moving, you’ve got to involve everybody. It’s a challenge.

 

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