City, King County changed disaster preparedeness since 9/11 attacks

September 13, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

The decade since 9/11 has reshaped how Issaquah and King County leaders prepare for disasters and manage the response to emergencies.

The attacks also meant increased attention — and dollars — for emergency management efforts, although local officials said the initial focus on counterterrorism sidelined plans about other dangers, such as floods and earthquakes.

“All of the sudden there was a big focus on emergency management in general. That was good news from an emergency management perspective,” said Bret Heath, city public works operations and emergency management director. “The bad news is that it shifted from all hazards to almost strictly terrorism immediately following 9/11.”

Issaquah planners focused on more common emergencies — floods, snowstorms, windstorms and the like — in the years before the attacks.

“We had to really try hard to stay focused on all hazards because of the federal-level push for terrorism,” Heath said. “Fortunately, logic prevailed and they realized that terrorism is one of the hazards. It’s not the only hazard.”

The threat from terrorism exists, of course, although officials said a terrorist strike is not a top concern in the city.

“If you’re looking at it from a target perspective, we don’t have a lot of high-profile targets in Issaquah,” Heath said.

Leaders also participated in elaborate exercises to map out responses to disasters. Mayor Ava Frisinger recalled a scenario meant to test plans to keep local government open if a natural or manmade disaster left top city officials dead.

Frisinger “died” in the mock incident. (If the mayor is unable to serve, executive power passes to the City Council president.)

Other exercises illustrated the need for closer collaboration among local government agencies.

“We found that we needed to have more coordination with communications,” Frisinger said. “It told us that, not only within city government, but that we needed to be able to communicate and coordinate with, for instance, the school district.”

Officials also boosted outreach efforts to residents by installing electronic message boards, adding more updates to the municipal radio station and hiring a communications coordinator.

“One of the biggest problems during emergencies is informing people about what’s going on, even if it’s something that’s very distressing,” Frisinger said. “The lack of information is frightening to people.”

The attacks a decade ago also unleashed a torrent of federal dollars for agencies to purchase emergency equipment and assemble disaster response plans.

Issaquah received about $100,000 through the Urban Areas Security Initiative — a Federal Emergency Management Agency program set up to address response needs — to improve security at municipal facilities. Other grants funded communications equipment for the city and rescue equipment for Eastside Fire & Rescue, plus decontamination equipment at nearby hospitals.

“There was kind of a mantra that if you weren’t involved in counterterrorism, you probably weren’t going to get funding,” said Hillman Mitchell, King County Office of Emergency Management director.

Communication among emergency response agencies — a concern in the confused days after the 9/11 attacks — also emerged as a focus.

“One of the things that we learned from the tragedy of 9/11 is that we had too many isolated means of communication, so many of the first responders that lost their lives that day, that was due in part to a lack of common communication,” Mitchell said.

Officials said King County and local agencies emphasized interoperability for communications systems before the attacks.

“In King County and across our region, our emergency communication systems are far more interoperable, which means that during an emergency, a police officer in one city can easily talk to a fire chief in another,” Mitchell said.

EFR Deputy Chief Bud Backer said disaster response plans encompass the region — Pierce and Snohomish counties, in addition to King County — for a reason.

“We recognize that if there’s an attack, then it’s going to take the resources from our entire region to answer it,” he said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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