Chicago: Shouldering Interoperability

When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) gave the city of Chicago and its surrounding region a near-failing grade for interoperability in January, officials in the City howled in protest.
“We strongly disagree with the results of this study, and feel that the parameters of the study were inconsistent and limited,” stated a press release from Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC). “In some instances, the scorecard evaluated urban areas or regions that contain a small number of independent jurisdictions and compared them with urban areas or regions containing significantly higher numbers of independent jurisdictions—an apples to oranges comparison across the board.”
DHS’ slap was particularly stinging in a city whose premier landmark, the Sears Tower, had once been the target of terrorists and whose officials have been taking measures to secure its famous skyline, its mass transit system, and its people.
The Sears Tower was targeted by Narseal Batiste and six followers in Miami, Fla. who were arrested in June 2006 for allegedly plotting to destroy the skyscraper in a bid to surpass the carnage of Sept. 11, 2001. As of press time, their trial was under way.
But anyone wishing ill to Chicago, Ill., could have their pick of targets: the John Hancock Building; the Chicago Mercantile Exchange; Soldier’s Field;  Wrigley Field; US Cellular Field; O’Hare International Airport; Midway International Airport; multiple  subway lines; the Metra commuter rail system.
Terrorism is about “recognizing their intent to change our behavior and there are many ways that they could do that in Chicago,” Kevin Smith, director of media affairs at the OEMC, told HSToday.
Housed in the same building as the 911 call center, OEMC is the city’s first line of response and preparedness. It regularly checks current preparedness plans, making changes where appropriate, and maintains a relationship with federal departments to remain current on post-disaster planning. It’s also responsible “for training and equipping first respondersand some in the area of outreach to residents and businesses within the community to enhance preparedness,” Smith explained.  
Mass transit security
When it comes to mass transit, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), which oversees the city’s sprawling transportation system, established its own alert level in conjunction with the national terrorist alert level.
The city has undertaken a variety of measures to ensure mass transit security. Undercover CTA security officials and police are deployed to train stations and buses. 
All CTA buses and trains are equipped with security cameras and customer call buttons and the agency maintains a “see something, say something” campaign, according to Wanda Taylor, CTA media relations director.
CTA’s security budget has increased 56 percent since 2001despite receiving little funding from the city, which tries to keep rider fares low. Nonetheless, the city spends $22 million each year to fund the Public Transportation Section of the Police Department,  Taylor said.
Federal homeland security funds have helped: “CTA has received more than $14 million in homeland security grants since 2003 with $5.2 million anticipated from 2006 grants,” said Taylor. In addition, she said the CTA had applied for $5.7 million in grants for 2007.
Planning and preparation
The city is also preparing for the possibility of biological attack. “Our fire department is great with biohazards,” the OEMC’s Smith maintained.
In the event of a biological event, monitoring equipment will pinpoint “the location of that and the weather condition into the modeling system and identify the area affected by those chemicals,” said Smith. “Then it will draw a picture around the affected persons on the map.”
A reverse 911 system would then be activated, sending out a recorded message to people in the affected area and telling them to remain indoors. The system is capable of dialing out 1,000 calls per minute and would reduce casualties by keeping people indoors and informing them after the alert is lifted.
A citizen action plan encourages people to prepare and store individual and family emergency preparedness kits and develop family meeting and communications plans. It also encourages citizens to learn different responses to different emergencies through an OEMC website, www.alertchicago. com. The site also provides information on signs of terrorism.
“In short, having our residents aware of and prepared for the emergencies that could take place in Chicago not only makes them safer, it makes it easier for our first responders to focus on those most directly affected by an incident,” said Smith.
OEMC has worked “really hard to foster teamwork with city agencies,” Smith said. For example, CTA participated in OEMC’s disaster tabletop and field exercises with the Chicago Police and Fire departments to ensure a coordinated response by all the agencies.
The interoperability challenge
But it is in interoperability that Chicago faces its major homeland security challenge. DHS issued its Technical Interoperability Communication Area Scorecard (
scorecard-report-010207. pdf), grading 35 different cities on their emergency governance, standard operating procedures (SOPs) and usage on Jan. 3 of this year—and Chicago came in at the very bottom of the list, with sub par grades in each category.
Chicago ranked worst in governance, or the city’s decisionmaking ability, getting the equivalent of a “D.” In its grade, DHS found that decisionmaking was informal and the city lacked a strategic plan to guide its communication interoperability goals and funding. It recommended that Chicago create a unifying decisionmaking structure and work toward a regional strategic plan. It also recommended that Chicago encourage regional funding to complement its grant funding.
Chicago faired a little better in SOPs, getting roughly a “C.” DHS found that Chicago has some SOPs incorporated into its Tactical Interoperable Communications Plan and steps have been taken to institute these procedures among the multiple agencies. However, because of differences among agencies, during exercises police and firefighters were unable to understand and communicate with each other. As a result, DHS recommended the city work to develop one consistent SOP for the entire region and initiate basic and advanced training sessions and exercises to implement it.
DHS also found responders were able to use their existing equipment—the “usage” part of the report card—but were not up to the standard DHS considered proper. The responders could perform some interagency communication despite challenges during exercises, but DHS thought city responders should practice communications, test equipment and review their existing systems and technologies to support regionwide response.
One of OEMC’s complaints in response to the scorecard was that while the scorecard looked at five areas, grades were only posted for three. Despite this disagreement, OEMC has taken DHS’ recommendations seriously and begun implementing its suggestions to score better on the 2008 evaluation.
In the area of governance, where Chicago scored lowest, OEMC believes that Chicago’s technological capabilities were not included in the evaluation. Nonetheless, it has been working to build on its existing capabilities.
One of these capabilities is the city’s Unified Communications Vehicle, allowing any jurisdiction to assist the city in the event of a disaster. With its Internet protocol bridge technology, Chicago officials can communicate with responders nationwide.
“Our Unified Communications Vehicle would allow us to speak with any of the surrounding jurisdictions, which would be a critical issue in the event of a major incident requiring a multi-agency response,” Smith said.
The city has drafted various memoranda of understanding to define management, usage, and other necessary policies. It has upped the training and number of exercises with local, state and federal partners, including the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, a northern Illinois mutual aid organization, and ChicagoFIRST, a non-profit association addressing homeland security and emergency management issues that affect financial institutions. All the area hospitals have unified communications.
According to Smith, in Chicago, interoperable communications means that more than 120 separate jurisdictions need to communicate seamlessly. Realizing the technical challenge, Chicago has begun to correct its problems and continues to work to resolve the interoperability issues raised by the DHS scorecard.
Stacy Jeziorowski is a staff writer with, based in Chicago.

The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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