Security Management interviews Norberto Colón, the assistant director of public safety for the City of Cleveland.
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.
How would you characterize your region’s relationship with its federal partners? What would you change, if anything?
Most of the UASI funding obviously trickles down through the state to us, so we really deal with the state on the day-to-day money spending items. But there is a regular contact that both we and the county have with our federal partners. And that relationship tends to go pretty well. We don’t have to deal with them often unless there are some questions or some guidance that we need related to some policy issues, but on the city side we also have some direct links with the federal government, whether it’s related to our critical infrastructure and their infrastructure specialist that they have on staff, or whether it’s related to the federal Buffer Zone Protection Program (BZPP) grants or their medical response grants. I believe the relationship is a very good one.
I think that there are some things that I would like to see, and I’m not sure really how this would be accomplished, but some of those funds would tend to work better if they came directly to the local municipality. As an example, right now we’re just getting ready to spend 2009 federal grant funds even though we’re in 2010. We traditionally tend to be a year behind on spending because by the time the money comes from the feds down to the state and down to the city, you’re at least a year behind. Everyone has their own legislative procedure that they need to go through in order to pass down the funding. So that’s one of the things that still needs to be ironed out in the future: how do we streamline the process of funding?
Does your office engage the private sector in its mission? If so, how?
Not nearly as much as we probably should or need to. That’s one of the areas that we just recently started focusing on, probably in the last 12 months. The first few years we really had to get the hang of this preparedness effort at the level that we’re doing it today, and so we’ve really been spending a lot of the time internally with our EOC and our EOP. The BZPP really was our first opportunity to go out there and meet with our private sector partners. We’ve had several BZPP sites within the city and that was the first opportunity for us to actually get out into the community and meet some of these building managers, these building owners, and these security specialists at these buildings, and I think one of the things that we learned right away in doing that is that their skill level and the things that they can bring to the table definitely offer some advantages to us within the city. Obviously with shrinking budgets we don’t get the opportunity to send our staffs out to stay up and current on some of the security infrastructure training that’s out there, but these private businesses really have people that are out there with a wealth of education and a wealth of knowledge, and frankly a different perspective than the one we have in the government sector. So working with them, talking with them, and frankly learning from them has been a big advance that we’ve gotten through the BZPP.
Over the last 12 months, like I’ve said, we’ve been focusing our effort clearly on the infrastructure side through our state fusion center. We’ve been trying to engage some of these businesses that we identify as critical in the county, and doing some site assessments and educating them on some of the things that we’re able to provide to them.
More specifically one of the new initiatives driven by banks in the downtown is formation of a public-private partnership, under the regional planning council model created in Chicago by ChicagoFIRST (Fostering Industry Resilience and Security through Teamwork). We’re going to use that as an effort to share some of our training, some of our knowledge, some of our training and resources so that we, the city can do a better job in relaying where we stand with our preparedness efforts and how we can help each other. Right now it’s planned to consist only of banking organizations but it’s eventually going to be open to all of the building owners and managers that reside within the county, so that we can have a platform where we can really have the concerns of the private entities voiced at these meetings, and I think that’s what we’re heading toward.
Has the region gained any valuable lessons from recent exercises or responses?
We exercise on a regular basis. Most recently we had an exercise with our federal and state partners on the transit side of the house, and that was a functional exercise in which we had some improvised explosive devices at several transit locations throughout the city. That was the most recent, but whether it’s a public-health related exercise or a terrorism-related exercise, there tend to be a few a year. We always learn from them. And frankly we always take the opportunity to learn from some of these real-life events that happen throughout the country and throughout the world, and we constantly update our plans to reflect on those lessons learned.
One of the clear lessons learned for us within this region is that of communication. We realized quickly that there needs to be a better solution for us to communicate with all those first responders within Cuyahoga County, within the region and within the state, both in terms of technology and protocols. Once we iron out the frequency spectrum allocation piece, immediately then it’s going to be more a matter of policy and procedure—how to use the radio, how to establish talk groups, etc. It’s a combination of both. I think that is clearly the number one area where we need to get some work done, and part of the work is going to require a more robust infrastructure and training associated with that infrastructure.
The other issue is communication on the press/joint information side, which is probably our second-biggest lesson learned from these exercises. We’ve got to be able to push out messaging immediately and then constantly after an incident arises. And then we’ve got to understand who our audience is when we push that message out. There’s a message obviously for the citizenry and some of the concerns that they have, but there’s also messages for those business and property owners, where if we vacate downtown for any particular region, the message for the citizens that live downtown may be a different message than for those business owners and security personnel who have to manage their property. That’s the second part where we learn a lot in those exercises.
What are your office’s major goals going forward?
We have a few. The first one is to continue working on the interoperable communications challenge, and I would take it a step further and call it an operability challenge that we have within the city and the county, and then the interoperability challenges. I think there clearly is a radio infrastructure void within this region that I think we’re working on identifying some resolutions to that. Secondly, I think we need to expand the role of the private sector within our preparedness efforts. I think we’re going to have an opportunity to do that here with the release of an evacuation plan that we’re working on citywide. We have to identify what the responsibilities are because private companies clearly have things to offer us but we clearly need to know what they would like to hear from us as it relates to our overall planning strategies. Even with what we’re doing with the banking community, there are a lot more private partners that I think we need to do a better job of reaching out to. Then the last goal is to release a community education process. We need to really get the community engaged and to really take some responsibility for preparing themselves and their families should an incident arise. I think those three are really what we need to focus on in the future.