BALTIMORE – Regional homeland security forces still face barriers to cooperation, even years after the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history, said leaders from Maryland and five other states meeting here Wednesday.
Local governments sometimes are unable or unwilling to work with higher authorities, they agreed, and working together must be the priority.
“If a radioactive plume were over the Baltimore-Washington region, we don’t expect people would check the Weather Channel and see which way the wind was blowing,” said James Spears, West Virginia’s homeland security adviser. “We expect that most people would say, ‘Honey, let’s get the kids and get in the car. We’re getting the heck out of Dodge.”
The remarks came before about 200 people at the All Hazards Forum, a gathering of public and private safety officials at the Baltimore Convention Center. Officials from Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York and the District of Columbia participated.
John Droneburg, director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said the state’s security teams still face many obstacles in planning for the future, including deciding how best to share information with local governments and sustaining state programs despite budget cuts.
“We all know that federal grant money is decreasing,” Droneburg said. “It’s important that we keep these programs going.”
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been successes, the officials said.
Dave Mitchell, Delaware’s homeland security director, said with new communications programs in place, he was able to notify neighboring states within minutes that a C-5 cargo jet crashing near Dover Air Force Base in 2006 had nothing to do with terrorism.
“We were able to do that because we were ready,” said Mitchell, a former head of the Maryland State Police.
Darrell L. Darnell, D.C. homeland security director, said his counterparts across the region still struggle to get different public safety departments to work together as often as they should.
“We have to have a culture of sharing information so that people know how things should be done,” he said. “You don’t always see that.”
Jim Powers, director of Pennsylvania homeland security, said his state’s biggest challenge remains getting information and directions to local governments, who aren’t always interested or willing to work together.
“The right thing to do is usually the hardest thing to do,” Powers said.
In a smaller panel discussion later, several officials, including Frederick Police Sgt. Dennis Dudley, gave instructions on handling street gangs during a national disaster.
To avoid the chaos that occurred in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, including looting, government must maintain stability during a crisis, especially if it involves evacuations. That means learning gang symbols, colors and tendencies and developing security guidelines for shelters, he said.
“If a criminal is a criminal before he’s in a shelter, he’s probably going to be a criminal when he’s in the shelter,” Dudley said. “It’s important to plan for that.”