Urban Area Perspective - Chicago

By Joseph Straw

Q. How have the city and region worked to boost communications interoperability?

A. We’ve worked very closely with Cook County, and we’re in the final stages of implementing a regional interoperable communication system. We’ve been working on the back end—the infrastructure—for quite a while We’re planning testing and our intent is to start it during some multi-agency training exercises this year.
One of the things that I think gets lost in this whole homeland security community when we talk about interoperability is the interoperability of different departments from an equipment and training standpoint. And that’s one of the things that we’ve really taken hold of here in the region—not just the city but within the region—is to make sure that our fire departments, from an equipment standpoint, are interoperable with jurisdictions that surround or are contiguous to the city.
When we say “interoperable” everybody thinks we mean interoperable radio: the voice and data. But what we can’t lose sight of from an operational standpoint, from a mitigation standpoint, is that we have to ensure that the first responder community is also interoperable among themselves, which allows us to bring more resources to the table in a shorter amount of time, which gives us a better chance to get the optimal mitigation that we’re looking for during an incident.
If there’s an standard operating procedure (SOP) or an emergency operation procedure (EOP) in the City of Chicago or the City of Evanston, which borders Chicago, it’s important that the first responder community in Chicago is aware of the SOP or the EOP for Evanston, and that we can fold into their system should we be responding for assistance as seamlessly as possible, and vice-versa.

Q. What has been your region’s greatest success in the homeland security mission?

A. I actually think it’s the OEMC facility. This facility was built in 1995, moving fire and police dispatch under one roof. The call-takers and the dispatchers actually sat together in one geographical location. It effectively established unified command in incident management, and it allowed us to better manage the incident because it prevented a duplication of responses and a drain on resources. When it opened there were some members of the media that criticized the mayor, saying that he spent too much money here. And it was the Mayor Daley’s vision to bring everything under one roof. He was way ahead of his time as far as unified command goes. And then shortly after 9-11 the media was asking the mayor why he didn’t build it bigger, and why he didn’t spend more money.
And I think something that’s been a success within the City of Chicago for years is the fact that the first responder community has worked so well together—fire, police health, aviation, the Chicago Transit Authority—we’ve always worked well together and we’ve always sat at the table together, long before 9-11. And obviously Operation Virtual Shield (OVS). The OVS network is how we refer to it here, and it’s the camera surveillance network within the city has been a huge boost to the first responder community.

Q. Is fiscal sustainability a challenge? If so how has your region adjusted?

A. It’s difficult times for you, for me, and it’s difficult times for any municipality or government agency. And our challenge is providing security and emergency response with the resources that we have, and to make sure we efficiently use our resources. And that’s where effective planning is extremely crucial. And it’s important, especially as we invest in technology, that we ensure the technology we’re investing in today is compatible with the technology that we’re going to be investing in next year. We can afford to build that solid foundation where we’re not going back and taking a technology that we invested in, and that’s a challenge. And I’m not saying it’s easy. And where we find that we can’t use it, now we have to make a bigger investment.

Q. To what degree does your office work with federal partners? And to that extent, how is the relationship?

A. We work with our federal partners whether it’s in planning exercises or grants administration. And we work very well with them; I honestly don’t see a downside. It’s a very cooperative, open exchange of information. We meet regularly with our regional partners, our state partners, and our federal partners. Whether it’s FEMA or the federal agencies that have a permanent presence here in the city. And we all work well together. And a lot of this foundation and these relationships were fostered years ago, prior to 9-11 in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) here, where all of those agencies have a seat. And if we activate the EOC, whether it’s for a no-notification event or a pre-notification event, all those partners have had a seat at that table for years. So the relationships are very strong.

Q. Does your office collaborate with the private sector? If so, how?

A. They’re very much a part of what we do. The Building Owners and Managers Association represents a majority of the commercial real estate in the central business district and ChicagoFIRST, which is made up of businesses in the financial district. They have a seat at the table at the Public Safety Consortium meetings, they’re part of our normal notification process for incidents in the city, and we network with them on a regular basis. We attend their meetings, they attend our meetings, and they’re all participants in DHS’s Buffer Zone Protection Plan. BOMA and ChicagoFIRST have seats in our EOC. And like I said they’ve been a part of the Public Safety Consortium since the beginning, and they’ve also been a part of regular interaction with the first responder community here in Chicago for many, many years. So we have a very, very close relationship with them.   

Q. Have any recent responses or exercises produced valuable lessons?

A. I think the key lesson we’ve learned is the importance of communications, and that the information flow that comes out of an incident is accurate and everyone gets that information, and that everyone gets regular updates. We’re developing an IT team because so much information first responders use now comes from wireless devices and computers in command vehicle. So we want to ensure that we can sustain that ability to push that information during an event, that it stays secure.
In a response we count on information we can get about, say, a specific building. And it’s important that we organize that data and look at how the first responder community and the emergency management community can use technology more on a daily basis as part of their standard operating procedures, to ensure that we maintain our ability to receive that information during a large-scale event. So we put that group together and now they’re in the process of coming up with SOPs. If we face a major event we have to take the customer service approach, and we have to ensure that we’re able to assist businesses or property managers and not detract from their continuity of operations (COOP) plans. And that’s where that IT group comes in. We’ll have a liaison that embedded in the unified command structure who can tell the incident commander, “Here’s what we need to do and we need to allow this to happen to allow this agency to initiate their COOP plan because they have so much data electronically.” That’s what we’ve tasked the IT team with, and it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out over time. Because we need to start to look out into an incident four hours, 12 hours, three days, from a technology perspective.


Q. What are your office’s major goals looking forward?

A. My goal every day is to ensure that Chicago is as safe and as prepared as any big city can be. And I think it’s important that we continue to evolve as far as emergency response goes, disaster recovery, and our own COOP plan. The private sector has been doing this for years. So instead of reinventing the wheel, our approach was to talk to the private sector. They already had the best practices worked out. It allows us to develop and to implement our COOP plan based upon best practices that have been out there and existed, and more importantly have been tested for a while. So I think that’s one of the goals. And another goal is to never rest on our laurels here, to be always pushing the envelope to see what we can do next.



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