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Region prepares for emergency



Published: Sun, September 10, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



In Pennsylvania, funding is distributed on a regional basis.

VINDICATOR STAFF REPORT

Officials say there is better communication and cooperation among safety forces since Sept. 11, 2001, brought about by the millions of dollars sent from federal and state agencies to the local level.

"People are talking," said Nancy Dragani, Ohio Emergency Management Agency executive director. "That really didn't happen pre-9/11."

"It's a shame that it took something like Sept. 11 to pull everyone together," added Linda Beil, Trumbull County's director of Homeland Security and its EMA.

9/11 also brought about new equipment for nearly any kind of emergency, nationally standardized training, regional cooperation and greater public awareness. Instead of turf wars, conversations from the federal to the local levels deal with everything from response to terrorist attacks to how to restock stores after a disaster.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, today we would be somewhere about 8.5. Five years ago, we would have been at 2.3," said Walter Duzzny, director of the Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency, referring to the county's ability to respond to terrorism. That's because sufficient funds for equipment and training have been available during the past five years but not previously, he said.

Also, people are more aware of their surroundings. "We have people reporting suspicious cars far more than they ever did before," Duzzny said.

Dragani said it's difficult to determine at the state level just how many people are taking part in activities relating to Homeland Security.

Funds received

Since 9/11, some $411 million in federal Homeland Security funds were given to Ohio, according to the state EMA. (A federal Homeland Security official said the figure could actually be as high as $417 million.)

The state EMA says it administered some $318 million, with the rest going directly from Homeland Security to various local departments and agencies without going through the state EMA.

This has meant at least $9.7 million to the Mahoning Valley that has paid for everything from guns to computer software.

Pennsylvania has received in excess of $230 million in Homeland Security money since 2001.

Western Pennsylvania has seen $33.8 million, which has been used for joint purchases for the 13 counties nearest the Mahoning Valley; it's also paid for computer software and high-tech gadgets.

The federal money has gone to local police, fire and health departments in both states.

That money is being cut back now; Dragani said planning is now shifting to other areas, such as ways to support the economy, including supplying stores in the event of an influenza pandemic or other event, and helping businesses.

Homeland Security money passes through the Ohio Department of Public Safety to local governments with no state or local matching funds required.

Other sources

Ohio and Pennsylvania officials didn't readily have comprehensive Homeland Security figures on spending. In addition to the Homeland Security funds sent to the state and the direct funds to local agencies, funds from other federal agencies such as the Department of Justice and Health and Human Services were made available to local agencies for Homeland Security-related activities.

A Web site at the Ohio Homeland Security Agency, a sister agency to the state EMA, shows spending since 2001 for Mahoning County, $4.8 million; Trumbull County, $3.4; and Columbiana County, $1.5 million. Dragani said the site's figures, however, need updating. The state EMA says federal funding for health departments and allocations from seat-belt fines add $1.9 million to dollars provided locally.

In Pennsylvania, the funding is distributed on a regional basis. The state is divided into nine counterterrorism task forces with Mercer and Lawrence counties part of the Region 13 Counterterrorism Task Force -- which includes 13 counties and Pittsburgh.

Region 13 formed in 1998 -- well before the Sept. 11 attacks -- in response to the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City. Frank Jannetti, Mercer County's public safety director, said funding to Region 13 increased dramatically after 2001.

According to Pennsylvania's Homeland Security office, Region 13 received $135,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice in 1999, and its funding peaked at $12.4 million in 2003.

Those dollars were used for regional purchases that small counties like Lawrence and Mercer could have never afforded alone, said Brian Melcer, public safety director in Lawrence County. The purchases are made on a regional basis, and each county has agreed to assist the others in a disaster or terrorist attack.

"The region invested $1.1 million in decontamination trailers," at least one for each county, Melcer said. "Lawrence County received one, but, more importantly, has access to all of the other decontamination trailers in the region."

Jannetti, of Mercer, said relationships with nearby counties have mattered more than the equipment. "If we had a disaster, the people from Butler, Lawrence, Beaver and others would come here. We've made a lot of inroads with people, and that's the most important part," he said.

MAHONING COUNTY

Mahoning County has used its nearly $5 million from Homeland Security over the past five years for the EMA, police and fire departments, law enforcement task force, Haz-Mat and dive teams and emergency medical grants for hospitals. Grants to police departments have paid for protective masks and communications equipment. Fire departments have gotten new air tanks and related equipment.

"We provide the oversight. We buy equipment and provide training and planning for everything that we're going to do," Duzzny said of the EMA's role.

Mahoning County-based equipment includes a command post, an armored personnel carrier and rescue vehicle, a bomb squad vehicle, a mobile decontamination unit and three mass casualty trailers.

The equipment and training is geared for all types of emergencies -- not just those related to terrorism. "We deal with all hazards. We deal with floods, blizzards, explosions and bomb threats," Duzzny said.

Another aspect of the post 9/11 homeland security effort is regionalism, meaning shared use of expensive mobile command posts, bomb squad and armored vehicles among many jurisdictions. "Everything we bought is under an assumption that it could be deployed when necessary anywhere in Northeast Ohio," Duzzny said.

What else changed

There also have been major changes in emergency communications -- a big reason the Mahoning County EMA took over supervision of the county's 911 answering system about 18 months ago, Duzzny said. "There needed to be an integration between the two. You can't plan without communicating," he said.

Homeland Security money has paid for upgraded communications and audiovisual equipment at the county's emergency operations center, which is now a backup 911 answering point. The upgrades have facilitated communications with federal, state and local emergency management personnel and improved communication among local police and fire departments.

Training is another key component. In Mahoning County in the past five years, more than 2,600 police, firefighters and ambulance personnel have received nationally standardized National Incident Management Strategy training. Since 9/11, the county has had 14 major joint disaster management exercises involving police, fire and ambulance personnel, all of them including chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive training.

Nearly 500 civilian community volunteers have also been trained in communications, rescue, first aid and CPR. Homeland Security funds have also been used locally to train mental health professionals, school personnel, funeral directors and representatives of business groups and faith-based organizations.

TRUMBULL COUNTY

Homeland Security provided $2.4 million to allow Trumbull County to upgrade its emergency preparedness. Another $1 million was provided countywide for emergency medical services training, and to fire departments.

Trumbull County focused most of its spending on communications upgrades, said Beil. Everything from radios to pagers, to a telephone notification system, to a police information-sharing system has been purchased. A smaller amount has been used to buy emergency vehicles and equipment.

She agreed increased cooperation among police and fire departments is just as important as the physical tools; the departments work together better now by understanding each other better. That understanding has come from working on projects together and agreeing on how to spend the resources, Beil said.

The physical tools also help. Before Sept. 11, the nearby fire departments of Warren, Howland and Warren Township couldn't communicate with one another as effectively as now, Beil said, because they were using different radio frequencies. New radios, provided to fire departments and a couple of police departments in 2004, cost $229,934.

In 2005, 325 fire department pagers were bought for $140,725. In 2003, $432,000 was used to upgrade the radio towers and equipment in the county 911 center. Also in 2005, $300,362 was spent for a records management system that allows police departments to share information on arrest warrants and police records countywide.

Linda Sypert, head of Trumbull County's data processing department, said that project is complete except that various police departments still need to upload their data to the central database so it can be shared.

Radar system

The county in 2002 bought a $20,000 Doppler radar system for the county's 911 center in Howland and weather alert monitors for every public school and three private schools in the county, costing $17,500. The monitors can be activated by the 911 center. Twenty sirens for townships that had none were also bought in 2003 and 2004 at a cost of $294,000.

In 2004, the county also spent $97,794 for a wireless communications network. It will also allow data transmission between the county's police and fire departments, health departments, hospitals, and the centers that take emergency calls, such as the county 911 center.

The project awaits installation of a tower in Niles and some additional funding. Towers have been installed atop Forum Health Trumbull Memorial Hospital and the county health department building in Warren. So far the sheriff's department, 911 center, Warren and Girard are able to use it. Niles, Hubbard, Lordstown, Newton Falls and Liberty are still awaiting the service, Sypert said.

For 2006, the county has submitted a proposal to use its $166,138 allotment for mobile data terminals. The computers are installed in police cars to allow officers to access a multitude of computerized records.

COLUMBIANA COUNTY

Columbiana County's big item is a modern $460,000 communications vehicle received in 2004 and shared with Carroll, Jefferson, Mahoning and Stark counties. The vehicle is about 29 feet long and about 7 feet high and is one of 11 placed throughout Ohio. It has computer access as well as radio, telephone and television, fax capabilities, emergency scene lighting and cameras.

The vehicle can be used for everything from natural disasters to training exercises to an emergency involving its special response team -- formerly known as Special Weapons and Tactics.

Also in 2004, the sheriff's office received $16,000 for 12 fully automatic AR-16 rifles. The department also received 10 portable radios with ear pieces and microphones, 10 protective vests that can protect deputies from the most high-powered rifles, a compact ladder to climb fences or to enter second-story windows, and a "body bunker," a curved shield to protect a deputy.

The sheriff's office also received 24 gas masks to protect deputies from tear gas or dangerous chemicals found at methamphetamine labs.

Paperwork involved

"I'm happy for every dollar we can get for free," Sheriff David Smith said. He had to fill out a great deal of paperwork and make repeated trips to Columbus to lobby state officials who had a hand in awarding the federal funds.

Other funds go to protect the public from bioterrorism and natural disasters in less visible ways. The Homeland Security site says the Columbiana County Health Department received $125,869 in 2002 for "public health infrastructure." Part of that pays for a state scientist who monitors health issues. The department has received or will receive an additional $452,127 for programs.

Before officials pinpointed an outbreak of hepatitis in western Pennsylvania in 2003, Michael Ruta, an Ohio Department of Health epidemiologist, knew something was wrong. He covers Columbiana and two other counties, tracking factors affecting the health and illness of individuals and the general population.

He has access to a computer program that tracks the sales of medicines for upset stomach and diarrhea. He saw that sales were up significantly. Such new tools help officials to see problems as they unfold and respond.

Planning ranges from weapons of mass destruction to pandemic -- a regional or worldwide outbreak of an infectious disease.

Ruta also deals with education and training. After 9/11, Ohio's medical communities formed the Ohio Volunteer Medical Response Corps to pitch in if needed.

Ruta said health workers would need to communicate with safety forces. The Multi Agency Radio Communication System was created that allows hospitals and key safety agencies to talk to one another.

Computer software was developed that lets medical professionals treat people faster at mass inoculation centers. Instead of helping about 200 people an hour, professionals can help 900 to 1,000 people an hour, Ruta said.

MERCER AND LAWRENCE

In Pennsylvania, Homeland Security funding is given out on a regional basis and counties in that region form a board which decides on bulk purchasing. In 2002, Region 13 received $2.7 million. Funding increased to $12.4 million in 2003 and $11.5 million in 2004. It's since gone down to $7.2 million in 2005.

The 13 counties and Pittsburgh create response plans and buy equipment to respond to disasters where there would be mass casualties, Melcer said.

Early on, the purchases included gas monitors for all fire departments and personal protective equipment for chemical, biological or nuclear disasters for emergency responders. But more recent funding has gone into larger equipment including barricade trailers, inflatable boats and utility work machines.

The federal funding has even gone toward the salary of one employee for each county to keep track of all of the equipment and region training.

Some of the equipment has been put to use on large-scale events such as the baseball All-Star Game in Pittsburgh last summer. All counties were there with their monitoring equipment, said Jannetti.

Contributors: Vindicator staff writers Laure Cioffi, Peter Milliken, Ed Runyan and D.A. Wilkinson.




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