THE MAGAZINE

Urban Area Perspective - Cleveland

By Joseph Straw

Norberto Colón is an assistant director of public safety for the City of Cleveland, overseeing the Office of Homeland Security, Grants, and Technology. The office is responsible for leveraging grants and technology under an all-hazards approach to assist the daily operations of public safety and help the city prevent, protect, respond, and recover from major events and crisis situations in an effort to minimize the impact on lives, property, and the economy. Colón began his service with the city in 2002 in the Department of Workforce Development. He also worked for two years in the city’s Empowerment Zone where he quickly became senior labor force manager. In 2004, Colón became the grants administrator in the Department of Public Safety where he oversaw over $17 million in homeland security related grants. He is a certified hazmat technician, first responder hazmat/WMD/PPE awareness trainer, and WMD radiological/nuclear awareness trainer. Colón holds a Bachelor’s Degree in psychology from John Carroll University and an Associate’s Degree in private investigation.

What are the responsibilities of your office?

I am one of three assistant directors for the Department of Public Safety. My specific area of responsibility is the Office of Homeland Security, Grants, and Technology. They’re three separate distinct sections but they are all related. The largest part of what we do is the public safety IT side, where we handle and support 3,000 public safety employees: records management systems, to their dispatching system, the computers, and the police, fire, and ambulances, all the way to the computer on the director of public safety’s desk. That is the bulk of the work that we do on a daily basis. Next obviously is the office of homeland security. Within that office we operate the emergency operations center (EOC) for the city, we also coordinate all of the homeland security incident command—terrorism, WMD preparedness training efforts—and we coordinate from the city’s standpoint, the emergency operations plan (EOP) and all the annexes associated with that plan. The third section is that of grants, where we handle all of the grants for the public safety department. All three departments are related in that most of those capital improvements come from grants that usually are used to pay for some type of IT project that helps the homeland security side of the house.

What assets and threats make your region unique?

What makes us unique, at least compared to some other cities, is that we don’t have those major daily occurrences or disasters that many of the other large cities do. We don’t have major flooding, especially within the core city. There’s flooding throughout Cuyahoga County, but that rarely affects the City of Cleveland. We don’t have the hurricane season that other cities have, traditionally we don’t have any large earthquakes, nor do we often have any tornadoes coming though the major cities of our area.

But our county is unique in that we are the largest county in the state of Ohio, and Cleveland is the area’s metropolitan hub. We have a large airport system, a large transit system throughout the city and the county; and a large water infrastructure. Downtown Cleveland is full of your typical sporting venues that draw several thousand folks on any given day, a large banking sector, and we’re know mainly for our large medical infrastructure throughout the city, which includes the Cleveland Clinic. There are a lot of unique areas within Cuyahoga County. But from an infrastructure standpoint, from a planning standpoint at least, I think most of our planning comes from one of two areas: obviously the threat of terrorism that every municipality faces really, and then weather. We have some unique weather, whether it’s in the middle of August, when it can get well over 100 degrees, or in the middle of winter it will be well below zero. Weather can be very challenging for us here.

How does the region coordinate planning and administer federal Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant funds?

The boundaries of the UASI region are the boundaries of Cuyahoga County. That consists of the core city of Cleveland, which is represented by my office, and then Cuyahoga County has a representative, which comes from its justice affairs office. We are set up in an urban area working group. The urban area working group’s biggest focus is really on preparedness efforts throughout the county. And through that effort we collectively, as a group, decide how to disperse that UASI funding and any state homeland security funding that comes our way. So that is one of their responsibilities as a group. An executive committee encompasses city and county officials, but also subgroups. And those subgroups represent fire, emergency medical services, public health, obviously law enforcement, the Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, and each of those subgroups has its own internal groups in which they talk about specific planning areas. A good example is law enforcement. The law enforcement subgroup gets together on a regular basis, and when they need to they talk about funding and their priorities, but mostly they talk about where they stand with their preparedness efforts, whether it’s through local policing efforts or through SWAT teams, bomb teams or canine groups. They start their planning efforts locally and pass any of their concerns or their responsibilities or any of their planning efforts up to the planning committee.

What is the greatest challenge in the region’s homeland security mission?

The most common answer probably is funding; you never have enough funding to do what you need to do, but we don’t put that at number one. We’re really grateful for any dollar that we get and we try to use it wisely. But our number one challenge probably is time. I think when we established the homeland security office several years ago, the core goals were to get an EOC up and running, get an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) based on some of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s guidance. Subsequently every year we work on different planning structures, and we’re at the point now where every year you want to update plans that are already written. So every year we have to consider the “next” plan that we don’t have, and we have to examine existing plans that need to be updated. And for all of those plans you have to exercise them and look at your capabilities such as in terms of equipment. So clearly our number one challenge is time to be able to get these things completed.

What is the region’s greatest success in the homeland security mission?

There are a couple things, but I think the most tangible item that you can clearly see that gets used on a regular basis is the city’s EOC. There’s no question that absent the post-9-11 homeland security mission, it probably wouldn’t have existed, or at least would not have existed in the fashion that it does today with all of its technological capabilities. That is clearly a success and an asset that is available to anybody in the region to use, to train, and it’s there for managing any type of event or incident. Clearly that’s a success. I think the larger success though is probably that of collaboration. I think this UASI in particular has really gotten the region together. There are roughly 60 municipalities within Cuyahoga County, many of them have their own infrastructure, whether it’s radio, whether it’s records on the law enforcement side, police departments, or fire services, but this homeland security effort post 9-11 really brought us even closer together, I think especially as it relates to special teams: the hazmat teams within the county, the swat teams, and the bomb teams. I think that’s probably been our greatest success. We know who the players are, we know them by name, and that’s something that’s new over the last 7-8 years.

How much of a challenge is posed by the recession, and how is the region adjusting?

There’s no question the recession has been very challenging. I think on the preparedness side of the house we have been able to continue doing what we do with the funding that we’ve been receiving. We continue moving forward on that side. However, the recession really has caused some hardship for our daily operations. And in those municipalities within Cuyahoga County I think that you’re going to see more of sharing of resources. I think at the end of the day that’s a good idea, and it’s the future, and I think that’s how we’re going to cope with it not only internally within the city—we’ve been looking at how we can share some of our resources and streamline the way we do business—but that’s absolutely happening at the county level. Everything’s on the table, whether it’s consolidation of dispatching functions, records management systems, IT staffs, emergency operations centers, or basic fire services; I think the conversation has even trickled over to waste collection services. We look like we’ll be at a point next year where we can’t continue to do those services in our own silos, but we’ll need to provide better services and save money at the same time.

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