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The First Response Is The Last Priority
NJ.com - Monday, January 24, 2005
By Bob Braun
(Professor Glenn Corbett is the chief technical advisor
to the Skyscraper Safety Campaign.)
Glenn Corbett is an unlikely Cassandra. He is an affable guy, easy with a laugh, and modest enough to admit he doesn't have all the answers.
But the core of the ancient Greek myth of Cassandra wasn't that she annoyed everyone within earshot with panicky warnings of looming disasters. Her punishment from the gods was that she would always tell the truth, but no one would believe her.
"We're still not paying attention," says Corbett, 45, who teaches fire science at John Jay College in New York and serves as the assistant chief of the Waldwick volunteer fire department in Bergen County.
Corbett testified before the 9/11 commission in November 2003 at the only hearing the panel conducted in New Jersey. True, much of his testimony was concerned with technical fire prevention standards to be used in new construction. Eyes glazed over.
But some of the testimony and his subsequent advocacy has been aimed at ensuring that, if disaster -- natural or man-made -- strikes again, emergency services will be prepared to handle the consequences.
"I don't think we are prepared," says Corbett, who notes, correctly, that much of the 9/11 commission's report and all of its subsequent lobbying efforts were directed at changing the structure of the national intelligence community.
Although one of the commission's primary responsibilities was analysis of first response and recommendations for its improvement, the panel didn't contribute much on the issue. Its public hearing in New York saw commissioners loathe to criticize former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The report itself skirted serious issues about communications and offered only one ambiguous recommendation for strengthening coordination.
"There's not much we can use," says Corbett.
His view -- unsurprising, given his background -- is that, especially in New Jersey, emergency response is skewed toward the contribution of the police and away from the contribution of fire and emergency medical services.
He uses as his text a report of the New Jersey Fire and Emergency Medical Services Institute -- a lobbying group, really -- that argues that only a unified command emergency structure outside any police agency can be effective.
"We're the 800-pound gorilla, but we're not in the room," says Corbett, a reference to the number of fire and medical services personnel in the state. "We're outside looking through the window."
Most of the responsibility for emergency management is vested with the State Police. Corbett says he and other fire service leaders fear that such an emphasis could lead to delays in the response of fire departments and ambulance squads to a real disaster.
Corbett says fire personnel in Bergen and Hudson counties have complained that word of possible threats to Hudson River crossings, while circulating among police agencies, have only gotten to fire and medical agencies second-hand or by accident.
"Fortunately, we've been lucky that the threats haven't been real, but, if something had happened, there might have been very costly delays in getting help to the scene," he says.
The police, Corbett says, have primary responsibility for securing an affected area and investigating the nature of the attack. Fire and medical personnel often should get to the disaster first to deal with fires and explosions and to provide medical care.
His solution is hardly controversial and is consistent with the one recommendation the 9/11 commission did offer on the subject -- unified command reporting directly to the governor.
"It doesn't always make sense for the police to respond first and then have them decide whether to call in fire and emergency medical services," he says. "We can't afford that delay."
A unified emergency center -- including fire, police, and medical services -- would make the first call on what is needed immediately, he says.
The chances for getting the emergency preparedness office out of the State Police is, he admits, small. Fire protection, like emergency medical services, is a decentralized service that often relies on volunteers and even private companies. There is no state Fire Department.
"The presence of the State Police in the halls of power is difficult to overcome," Corbett admits. "But the issue isn't one of political power. The issue is public safety."
Bob Braun's column runs on Monday and Wednesday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 392-4281.
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