An interview with Raymond Orozco, the executive director of the City of Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications
Raymond Orozco has served as executive director of the City of Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) since July 2008. He has overseen expansion of Operation Virtual Shield, which links the city’s private CCTV systems into OEMC’s video surveillance network, and he has launched an upgrade of the city’s 911 computer- and video-aided dispatch system. Orozco serves as the city’s principal for developing safety and security protocols and incident action plans for major events including 2008’s election night rally at Grant Park. A 29-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department, Orozco served as the city’s Fire Commissioner for two years before moving to OEMC. As commissioner, he managed more than 5,000 sworn department members and an annual budget of more than $470 million, updating the department’s incident command policies and high-rise life safety programs. Orozco developed the department’s Tactical Operations/Intelligence Center, which is responsible for providing mitigation, preparedness, response, intelligence, and coordination for small and large-scale emergencies and disasters. Orozco coordinated emergency responses including 2004’s LaSalle Bank Fire, the 2005 Ford City Mall natural gas explosion, and the summer 2006 METRA northeastern Illinois commuter train derailment. He earned his Associate’s Degree from Harold Washington College, his Bachelor of Arts degree from Western Illinois University, and is a certified EMT-B. A strong believer in education, Orozco has taught fire science classes for Chicago City Colleges, has lectured at Northwestern University Center for Public Safety, and is on staff at the University of Illinois Fire Institute in Champaign.
Q. What are the responsibilities of your office?
A. The office of Emergency Management and Communications provides 911 service for the Chicago Police and Fire departments, which includes EMS. It coordinates all major emergency responses within the city, or responses in which city agencies go outside our jurisdiction. We operate the city’s Operations Center. That’ s where traffic management is, it’s where our intel cell is located, and there we take in more CCTV feeds than any other unit of OEMC. We also have the City Incident Center—we call it the CIC—which monitors all the infrastructure within the city, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. By infrastructure I’m talking about all the city’s traditional infrastructure departments, including where their resources are deployed, and available. We also handle the city’s 311 information services.
Q. What assets and threats make your area unique?
A. The assets that are well known are obviously the famous geographical and architectural landmarks: the John Hancock Center and the Willis (Sears) Tower. Obviously we have the lakefront, and no different than any other large municipality we have a central business district including the financial district, which is on par with or even exceeds financial output that takes place in New York. And like every other large municipality in the United States we have expressways, major thoroughfares, and a major public transit system. And we also have major special events. For the Taste of Chicago on the third of July each year, we’ll draw in excess of a million people to the lakefront.
Q. How does your background inform your current work?
A. I’ve got 30 years with the City of Chicago. I spent 28 ½ years with the Chicago Fire Department, and I was fortunate enough to serve as a fire commissioner with the department, and a little over a year ago Mayor Richard M. Daley asked me to move over here, and I was honored that he did, and that’s where I find myself today.
Q. How does your region administer the homeland security mission?
A. We’re one of the seven Tier I cities under the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) program. UASI funds are governed by the Urban Area Working Group, which consists of members from the City of Chicago, various agencies within the city and Cook County, because the Chicago urban area comprises City of Chicago and Cook County. This governance body rolls up into a statewide governance structure called the Illinois Anti-Terrorism Task Force, IATTF, and we work very closely with them and actually sit on their committees.
Within the city, we have an organization that I think is unique, called the Public Safety Consortium. It includes the Fire and Police departments, the Board of Health, the city Department of Aviation, OEMC, and representatives from the Mayor’s office. There’s an IT subcommittee to make sure that everything that we do is compatible from a technology standpoint, there’s an operational subcommittee that addresses multi-jurisdiction, multi-department operational issues, and there’s also a training subcommittee to make sure that we have interoperability with regard to training.
Q. What is the greatest challenge your office faces?
A. I think there are a couple things. One is the threat that we don’t know about yet. And if I could answer that question I’d be working someplace else. So in Chicago we look at everything on the worldwide stage. We don’t just look locally; we do not just look regionally. We look at everything that happens throughout the world. We analyze data and events and that data is analyzed and pushed out to the appropriate departments as intelligence.
One of the other great challenges is technology, because technology is ever-changing. And you want to make sure the technology we invest in today is going to be compatible with technology that we invest in next year. So we continue to build upon the technology that we use that will give us leverage in the whole homeland security mission through system integration.
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.