errorist attacks in Madrid, London, and most recently Amman, Jordan, as well as threats to the New York City transit system and financial institutions in New York and New Jersey, have demanded the attention of public safety officials.1 The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina2and the public health threat posed by emerging infectious diseases such as the avian flu3 add to the demands on emergency responders and tax already stretched resources. These incidents and issues, individually and collectively, suggest that political leaders and public safety officials must think differently and explore alternative models to prevent, respond to, and mitigate a crisis.
During a crisis, public safety officials must respond quickly and creatively to circumstances not previously encountered. There must be collaboration and coordination among public safety officials, political leaders, government and nongovernment organizations, and the public.
Several models of collaboration and cooperation among emergency preparedness agencies exist. This article discusses one of those models: the White Plains Department of Public Safety, in which police, fire, and emergency medical services are brought together under a single commissioner.
The City of White Plains
|Photographs courtesy White Plains Department of Public Safety |
White Plains lies approximately 25 miles north of Manhattan. Major highways and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority rail system service the city. The city's diverse resident population is approximately 54,000, and the daytime population swells to 250,000 as workers commute into the city daily. This daily increase requires the department to protect more than three times the resident population during any given day. White Plains is the seat of Westchester County government and is the region's judicial center. Federal, state, county, and local courthouses are located in the city. It is the headquarters for several major corporations including Nine West, Heineken, and Snapple. It also provides two large retail shopping centers servicing Westchester and Putnam Counties in New York and Fairfield County in Connecticut.
The White Plains Department of Public Safety was established in 1916 and has functioned as a government entity for purposes of budget and administration under a commissioner since then, but in many ways the concept of a single public safety agency never permeated the organizational structure. The police and fire bureaus had separate identities and histories. Although both bureau chiefs reported to the same commissioner and conflicts were rare, neither bureau felt compelled to describe success in terms of the other's achievements. As a result, new programs were developed and defined individually.
Unified Communications System
In 1997 the department took a significant step toward building a more collaborative public safety agency when it combined police, fire, and EMS communications. Initially, it was a difficult process. Each bureau worried that a unified communications system would lead to operational problems and would diminish their identity. But the integrated communications system has not only strengthened department operations but also proved invaluable to building cooperation and collaboration among fire and police personnel during routine activities and emergencies.
Public Safety CompStat Meetings
In the months following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the department renewed its efforts to integrate police, fire, and EMS operations. Weekly CompStat meetings became, and continue to be, the driving force behind the department's cultural change and accomplishments. The meetings are chaired by the commissioner and attended by senior police and fire commanders. During the meetings, performance data is presented and the operations of both bureaus reviewed. Questioning is direct and requires each commander to identify critical issues, emerging patterns, and solutions to problems. Police commanders generally begin with a statistical depiction of current crime activity. Commanders identify factors that have driven either an increase or a decrease in crime. Subsequently, fire commanders describe fire and emergency medical responses, life safety inspections, and other operational issues.
During the past three years, the department has achieved significant results through the CompStat process and other organizational and operational changes. For example, crime has decreased by more than 35 percent in White Plains. In 2005 the number of structure fires decreased by 10percent from 2004. Confronted with over-crowded housing in the city, police and fire commanders identified at-risk locations, created bilingual safe housing education programs, and built partnerships with other city agencies to provide needed social services to a growing immigrant population. Police-fire collaboration has also helped proprietors develop and implement life-safety plans in all of the city's bars and restaurants.
In White Plains, police-fire collaboration has led to service enhancements that go beyond addressing routine issues. The leveraging of public safety resources has led to greater efficiency and effectiveness for personnel from both agencies. Daily collaboration between police and fire commanders on crime, fire, and quality-of-life issues has established a strong base upon which to build a comprehensive emergency preparedness program.
Addressing Terrorists Threats
The Department of Public Safety has adopted an all-hazards approach to emergency preparedness, recognizing that al-though some specialized capacity is need-ed to combat terrorism, it makes no sense to separate terrorism from other issues, such as industrial accidents and explosions, building collapses, floods, and mass evacuations. The Indian Point nuclear power plant is less than 10 miles from White Plains, and Kensico Dam, which holds back much of New York City's water supply, is just three miles away.
The department has approached emergency preparedness by strengthening its internal capacity and building strong relationships with outside jurisdictions. As recent events have demonstrated, human-made or other emergencies can quickly overwhelm the logistical and other capacities of a single jurisdiction.
In July 2003 the department placed two highly trained and specialized units into service: Fire Rescue 88 and the Police Emergency Service Unit (ESU). Rescue 88 significantly expanded the fire bureau's ability to conduct collapse, trench and confined-space rescue, heavy vehicle extrication, ice rescue, and hazardous materials operations. The primary mission of the ESU is to provide immediate tactical support to police operations and to augment the emergency medical services provided by the department's contract ambulance services.
Members of both bureaus have completed extensive training in their specialized areas as well as jointly participated in weapons of mass destruction and other domestic preparedness training opportunities offered by state and federal agencies. In September 2005 the department established the Unified Special Operations Command, which brought together the fire rescue and hazardous materials units, the police special response team and emergency service unit, and the emergency planning function under the joint command of a deputy fire chief and a police inspector. The command is housed and operates out of its own facility, a former fire station.
The department is a member of a special operations task force created by the county's career fire chiefs. The task force responds to major incidents involving hazardous materials and weapons of mass destruction as well as technical rescue emergencies. In addition, the police bureau's special response team participates in an interagency tactical response team that draws on local, county, state, and federal assets.
The department has sponsored and participated in several large training exercises which have brought fire, police and EMS resources and task force operations together to test local as well as county-wide capabilities. Recognizing the critical role the community plays in emergency preparedness, fire and police instructors have trained approximately one hundred members of the community emergency response team (CERT) program. The department established a private security working group, conducts regular infrastructure surveys, provides terrorism awareness training, and maintains close relations with public health providers.
The White Plains public safety model offers a command and administrative structure for emergency response. This model stresses collaboration and cooperation regarding routine public safety issues and challenges to effectively and efficiently leverage public safety assets. Homeland security grants are applied for and equipment and other resources acquired consistent with the department's mission versus police or fire bureau proclivity. Under the public safety model, building relationships with other local, county, state, and federal agencies, public health officials, the private sector, and the community have strengthened the department's ability to prevent, respond to, and mitigate crisis events.
The process of integrating police, fire, emergency medical services, and the various other disciplines and agencies necessary to provide a comprehensive emergency preparedness program is a difficult task. But responders must train together, develop common operating procedures and tactics, purchase equipment in concert, and have mutual trust and understanding if they are to be successful in preparing for, responding to, and mitigating large scale emergencies and crises. The public safety model offers one alternative to building cooperation and collaboration among emergency preparedness agencies. ■