Detroit Metro Disaster Plans are Updated

While acknowledging that security gaps remain, emergency workers across Metro Detroit say they are far better prepared today for a natural disaster or terrorist attack than in years past.

Today, for example, Detroit police will begin using an advanced radio system that is tied to the one used by the Michigan State Police and other agencies in the state.

And Macomb officials have mailed emergency preparedness plans to nearly every county resident outlining what materials they should keep on hand in case of a flood or other disaster.

With no threat of earthquakes or hurricanes, southeastern Michigan is unlikely to suffer a calamity on the scale of the Gulf Coast. But the specter of a terrorist attack or a sizable industrial accident still looms large over the area.

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick announced that the city is ready for an emergency.

"The city has a plan, we're focused and ready to put it in action," he said Monday, standing in front of one of the more visible signs of the city's improved security, a mobile command vehicle that would serve as the nerve center for a response to a crisis.

From the State Police to Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties, authorities insist they have put together plans for an array of disasters. Floods, tornadoes and severe snowstorms are considered the most likely.

But officials say they also have devised evacuation plans for the entire city of Detroit, though they decline to disclose them publicly. Many area first responders have had training on how to handle chemical or other hazardous material crises, and some have new ventilators and other equipment to cope with such an event. While agencies have made strides in providing better security, troubling security gaps remain.

Detroit recently overhauled its 32-year-old 911 emergency system, but Kilpatrick said that the new system still lacks reverse-911 functions allowing it to contact residents. During the August 2003 blackout, the city had no way to call residents with information such as where shelters were located or inform them that they needed to boil water before drinking it.

In addition, cordless telephones failed during the blackout and cell phone systems were quickly overwhelmed, making calls difficult even for emergency workers.

Oakland County authorities use a different radio system than Detroit or the State Police, though they said that patches allow them to communicate with the other system.

"The thing that is most glaring to me is how one person can bog down the help," Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said. "There are so many chokepoints in the system."

Bouchard, who is vice president of the Major County Sheriffs Association, said speeding any response to an emergency is already at the top of concerns for that national organization.

Macomb County wants to put all of its emergency workers on the State Police radio system, but two years after the blackout, only Chesterfield and Shelby townships are online, said Vicki Wolber, an assistant director for emergency management for Macomb County.

She estimated that it would cost $38 million to get the entire county online, but homeland security budgets don't begin to cover that kind of investment. Detroit, for example, reported federal homeland security grants dropped from $11 million in fiscal 2004 to $7.5 million in 2005, a 32 percent decline. Macomb County funds dropped 26 percent, Wolber said.

First Lt. Chuck Loader, a sector commander of homeland security for the State Police, stressed that local and state officials across Michigan are working more cooperatively and are preparing more broadly.

(c) 2005 The Detroit News