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9/11 drives new era of emergency cooperation

National emergency management consultant Mike Fagel Sugar Grove.

National emergency management consultant Mike Fagel of Sugar Grove.

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Updated: November 9, 2011 11:41AM

For emergency workers and first responders to catastrophes, the past 10 years can be summed up in one big word: interoperability.

It might sound like a word a kid is given at a spelling bee, but to emergency personnel, it is the number one priority, the top achievement, the Holy Grail of first response.

Simply put, interoperability is the ability of police, fire and other emergency personnel to talk to each other. Before Sept. 11, 2001, that was not so easily done.

“Ten years ago, you could have a police officer standing on one end of the block, and a firefighter at the other end of the block, and they couldn’t communicate,” says Steve Olson, Geneva fire chief.

That has changed. Not only have all first responders worked to communicate better during emergencies, they now drill at it, looking every day at better and more efficient ways to communicate. That was one of the key lessons of 9/11.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” says Don Bryant, director of Kane County’s Emergency Services Department. “A lot has been achieved, but there are new technologies that will let us achieve more.”

To go along with that, the Department of Homeland Security, along with the thousands of state and local emergency responders, developed a coordination process for emergencies or disasters.

Called the National Instant Management System, or NIMS, Bryant says it ensures emergency responders “all talk the same language, and do things the same.”

It is a particularly important consideration for police, fire and emergency workers who travel to disaster sites from out of town or out of state to help.

“It means they can start in when their boots hit the ground,” Bryant says.

Kind of akin to that is the growth during the past 10 years of another acronym, MABAS, or the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, which ties together fire, emergency units and special aid units such as hazardous material or biological response units.

At the time of the 9/11 attacks, MABAS, which originated in Arlington Heights, included 18 or 19 divisions, or fire and emergency response departments. It now includes 65 in Illinois, and has stretched into Wisconsin and is expanding to Indiana.

In addition to providing people and equipment for mutual aid for disasters — MABAS has some 40 technical response teams — the organization actually has stores of supplies throughout the area so it can mobilize things such as breathing tanks, boats, an entire tent city for emergency lodging and mobile warehouses, just as a small example.

Those caches of materials were secured through a federal grant after 9/11.

“It was expanding already, but certainly after 9/11, it picked up speed,” Olson says of MABAS.

Bryant says another difference in the past 10 years has been regional planning, which was done sparingly before 9/11.

“Basically, the effort is getting plans to intermesh with each other,” he says. “Before 9/11, everybody had their own plans.”

Kendall County Sheriff Richard Randall, who since 1993 has worked with national organizations on security issues, says global intelligence sharing has become a much bigger part of preventive measures since 9/11.

And all emergency responders agreed that nationally, there has been a change in attitude, and in imagination. Now, there are people sitting in rooms discussing emergency response, and trying to think of the unthinkable.

“It caused responders to cast a wider eye,” Olson says. “Now the unimaginable can occur, and we better be planning for it. Someone is always saying, what do we do if this happens … ”

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