The Effective Coordination of Communication & Implementation During a Catastrophic Event: A Time To Organize

Written by Dr. Salvatore Pizzuro, Ed.D

Dr. Salvatore Pizzuro, Ed.D

Dr. Salvatore Pizzuro a is a learning, transition and disability policy specialist, who represents people with disabilities at New Jersey’s Office of Administrative Law.  He holds a doctorate in Developmental Disabilities from Columbia University and an advanced degree in Disability Law from New York Law School.  He has consulted the US Congress on each reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act since it's inception, and has authored numerous books, professional journal articles and research studies in the areas of disability policy, education, rehabilitation, and community acquiescence. 

Monday, 20 September 2010 08:09

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In recent years, the issues of the design, preparedness, and implementation of emergency services in New Jersey have been discussed and debated with a mixed degree of consensus. Since September 11, 2001, the issue has increased in importance for some, and placed in the “back burner” by others. The inordinate amount of time that is taken in the planning of such services requires that the organization of agencies and communication systems begin as early as possible.

The evacuation of the populace during a catastrophic event remains a primary concern. Over the last few years, whether the evacuation of people with special needs during an environmental or man-made emergency can be feasibly undertaken has been discussed by FEMA and other agencies. In fact, FEMA held a conference in New York City in August 2008 that included county, state and federal agencies in order to seek an effective method of coordination and communication in order to secure the evacuation of people with disabling conditions during such a crisis. Unfortunately, the opinion of many in attendance was that there was no effective method for doing so.

New Jersey has the greatest population density in the nation. An evacuation from northern New Jersey would have to be westward and away from the coastal areas. Who would lead the evacuation? What form of transportation would be used?

Jack Welch of the Wall Street Journal (September 14, 2005) suggested that the first mistake made during the Katrina crisis was denial. It was known for many years that the levee system may not hold during a hurricane at a stage three level or greater. In addition, evacuation orders took for granted that the population would independently leave the area. No provision was made for those who did not own automobiles or those whose special needs made an independent evacuation impossible. City buses that could have been used for a mass evacuation remained idle. Appropriate food and water supplies for those left behind were inadequate or non-existent. Critical medical professionals left the area ahead of those needing their services.

New Jersey State Assemblyman Fred Scalera recently introduced a bill that would organize the communication system among the various agencies during such an event. As the Chairman of the Assembly Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee, Scalera proposes that a Statewide Public Safety Communications Commission be formed that would replace the Public Safety Interoperable Communications Coordinating Council. The new Commission would coordinate the 9-1-1 telephone system and New Jersey’s  Interoperable Communications System. In addition, a Statewide Public Safety Communication Council, consisting of first responders would be formed.

Assemblyman Scalera is the author of a law that requires the training of first responders when confronted with the aberrant behavior of people with autism and other conditions. An organized communication system that is effective during a crisis is essential. According to Scalera:

"In the years since Sept.11, we've learned a lot of things, including that we need to have better communication coordination and backup between emergency services," said Scalera (D-Essex), a career firefighter. "With this legislation, we're trying to do just that: create a totally integrated system that allows emergency service personnel to cross communicate on all bands - data, video and radio - across any system in the state through the use of wireless broadband."

The bill, A-2934, would eliminate the loss of time that may result from a lack of coordination when attempting mass communication across various agencies. Assemblyman Scalera also points out that:

"We have a chance to be at the vanguard and do something that nobody's been able to get right yet," allowing for seamless communication during a storm, flood or other natural or man-made disaster, will help keep residents and first responders safe and informed…”


Scalera’s legislative effort to create a statewide Public Safety Interoperable Communications Council has been submitted to Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver for further consideration. It is also hoped by members of the disability community that such planning will effectively allow for the evacuation of people with disabilities during an emergency. The identification of people with special needs who would require assistance during a state-wide crisis remains a challenge. Current methods for developing a data base for such a population rely on people with special needs independently volunteering to be included on such a list by sending email messages or completing application forms. This procedure eliminates those who cannot engage in such a process because they are unaware of the process or are precluded from doing so because of their disabilities. In addition, there is no established procedure for contacting those people and specifying how they would be evacuated.


Nevertheless, Assemblyman Scalera’s legislative effort is a step in the right direction. The effective coordination of the various avenues of communication during a crisis is essential if the full services of public agencies are to be employed.

 

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The Effective Coordination of Communication & Implementation During a Catastrophic Event:  A Time To Organize