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Monday, March 1, 2004

Coming Together

Speakers and attendees at EMERGENCY RESPONSE 2003 agreed that leaders of helicopter and other first-response units must unite in planning against disasters large and small–or face losing the fights against them.

Greater collaboration and MORE integration. Those are two critical requirements if emergency response agencies in U.S. communities are to meet and overcome the challenges posed by major incidents and terrorist attacks, leaders of those agencies told attendees gathered for the recent EMERGENCY RESPONSE Conference and Exhibition.

The event, held Jan. 7-9 at the Convention Center in Long Beach, California, brought together civilian, military and private-sector fire/rescue, EMS, law enforcement and public health professionals from the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. They met for two and a half days of discussions on better integrating the capabilities available in the response to a major incident and finding funding to support such integration. California’s Orange County Fire Authority showcased the capabilities of its Bell UH-1H at the show. Also in the exhibit, Erickson Air-Crane highlighted the capabilities of its firefighting and heavy-lift helicopters. RAM Systems LLC briefed visitors on its helicopter-borne thermal imaging system for disaster management. EMS Technologies offered presentations on its emergency-response and search-and-rescue products.

Many attendees and some speakers were precluded from joining those discussions at the last minute by duties related to elevated terrorist warnings in the U.S. Attendance was also affected somewhat by the rescheduling of the event from late November 2003. Wild fires in Southern California in October and November led organizers to shift the dates, recognizing the need of many attendees and speakers to focus on battling those fires and recovering from those operations.

Nonetheless, the conference laid out useful viewpoints and valuable information for attendees on integrating the response to major incidents and funding such efforts, as well as the critical role helicopters can play in responding to and managing such incidents.

In his keynote speech, Orange County, California Sheriff Michael S. Carona told attendees and exhibitors that it is essential that emergency responders collaborate more. This is true not only in responding to incidents, he said, but in making clear to political leaders what funding and capabilities are necessary for effective responses to major incidents.

Carona is one of 15 members appointed by President Bush to the federal Homeland Security Department’s Emergency Response Senior Advisory Committee.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal government targeted about $1 billion in new funding for response capabilities, but much of that money was wasted on pork-barrel projects that did little to improve response effectiveness, Carona said. That was through no fault of Congress, which appropriated the money, or the federal government, he argued. Rather, it was the fault of the emergency response community.

“We all believe that what we are doing is crucial to protecting the public, and we can all make a case for why our agency needs the money,” Carona said.

That is just what response agencies did after September 11th, he said. Rather than present a coordinated plan for improving response capabilities, they argued their individual cases. Inundated with individual requests, members of Congress and their staffs were left confused about the best measures to fund. “We couldn’t tell them what needed to be done, so there was nothing they could do to help us.”

He urged first response agencies to work with each other in developing coordinated plans for major incidents such as terrorist attacks, and in particular to solicit the opinions of personnel on the front lines about the improvements that would do the most good. There is little doubt that such agencies will be called upon again to response to a September 11-like incident, Carona said.

“Terrorism is alive and well and is a part of America’s future,” he said.

A number of speakers at the conference emphasized the need, in today’s budgetary and threat environment, for emergency-response leaders to make the effectiveness of the response the priority.

Honeywell Chief Pilot Ed Newton offered an example of greater collaboration. Newton spoke as part of a panel describing a September 2003 mass-disaster drill that utilized a volunteer air wing of corporate helicopters organized by the National Burn Victim Foundation (see “Corporate Pitches In,” November 2003). He served as air coordinator for that.

Through contacts made in that exercise, Newton said, federal emergency managers in metropolitan New York called on the foundation when the U.S. terrorist threat level was raised to “high” around the Christmas holiday. The officials asked for lists of corporate aircraft and crews available to respond in the event of an attack, and for those aircraft, pilots and mechanics to be put on standby to do just that. They also wanted–and got–a foundation official designated as the round-the-clock point of contact to activate those crews.

This year’s conference included the traditional presentation of the Helicopter Heroism Award, which for 2003 was presented to CW3 James E. Hardy. He was selected for actions that saved the lives of fellow Apache crewmembers during the opening battle of Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan on March 2, 2002. (See, “Staying in the Fight,” November 2003, page 30.)

The awards dinner was sponsored by Goodrich, which also exhibited its hoists and other products at the show. The reception preceding the dinner was sponsored by Breeze-Eastern, which also exhibited its hoists.

Organizers of EMERGENCY RESPONSE presented a new award this year honoring emergency response agencies and leaders that advance the concept and practice of integrated response. The first annual Multi-Agency Integrated Response Award was presented to the agencies and incident commanders that responded to the November 2002 pile-up of nearly 200 cars on a stretch of the 710 Freeway in Long Beach.

“The selflessness and professionalism of these agencies and their personnel exemplify an integrated response and the benefits of such a response to public safety,” the citations read. “Their success in the face of many challenges that day is a model for emergency responders everywhere.”

EMERGENCY RESPONSE returns to California for its next conference and exhibition. That will be held at the San Diego Convention Center on Nov. 16-19, 2004. For more information, contact Stephen Schuldenfrei at SSchuldenfrei@pbimedia.com.

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