HARRISBURG – In his ongoing efforts to bolster response and preparedness in Pennsylvania, Gov. Edward G. Rendell proposed dramatic changes in state operations to lessen the impact of future emergencies and natural disasters.
The changes, recommended in a comprehensive independent review he ordered, include the merger of the state Office of Homeland Security with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. The new cabinet-level agency would be called the Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.
“As much as humanly possible, we want to make sure Pennsylvanians and people who visit here are safe. I ordered this report to identify areas of improvement,” the governor said. “This review provides clear direction for a safer future for our residents and those who travel here.
“Everyone should know, however, that we haven’t waited for this report to improve Pennsylvania’s emergency preparedness. Since February, we have worked to become better organized and staffed and our agencies now have the resources and authority they need to make sure people’s lives are not put in jeopardy.
“Merging the Office of Homeland Security with PEMA would improve the coordination of the state’s emergency response and it would create a more comprehensive state of readiness,” Rendell said. “With the new agency, we will have one voice instead of two.”
The merger was one of the recommendations in a report by James Lee Witt Associates, part of GlobalOptions Group Inc., on Pennsylvania’s emergency preparedness. The governor released the report Friday.
The report also recommended the state:
-Bolster the governor’s Emergency Management Council with a new charge and responsibilities.
-Require the new Department of Emergency Management to develop a strategic plan.
-Coordinate all emergency management and response efforts across all agencies.
-Develop a more aggressive and fiscally responsible model for distributing federal and state money.
-Develop partnerships with local governments, the private sector and the federal government.
-Launch a citizen preparedness campaign to establish Pennsylvania as a leader in the concept of making private business and individual citizens partners with government in preparing for and responding to disasters.
-Pursue an update to Title 35, which deals with the health and safety of Pennsylvanians and is the home for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Code.
-Adopt the National Incident Management System, which was developed so responders from different jurisdictions and disciplines can work together to better respond to natural disasters and emergencies, including acts of terrorism.
“From 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina to last February’s storm, the field of emergency response in Pennsylvania and nationwide has evolved in response to every new challenge,” Rendell said. “I’m committed to using every available resource, in the most efficient possible way, to enhance public safety and hone our readiness.
“Emergency preparedness and safety are important issues for everyone, no matter where we live or what we do,” he said.
Since February, PEMA, the Department of Transportation and Pennsylvania State Police have implemented a host of improvements at the governor’s direction.
PennDOT, for example, updated its Web site with a separate travelers’ information section; made technological changes so the Interstate Condition Hotline will be automatically fed information from PennDOT’s road condition reporting system; and adopted a set of common terms to describe road conditions.
PEMA hired new PEMA Director Robert French and filled key management positions within the agency, including appointing a new director of the Bureau of Operations and Training; created a new Bureau of 9-1-1 Programs and named a director; and created a new deputy director of administration position for improved coordination.
And state police created the position of department watch officer to monitor all state police activities during emergency situations and to ensure that the same information is provided to state police commanders at all levels, including other agencies involved in an emergency response; installed a state police mobile office computer terminal at the state’s emergency operations center to give state police personnel working at the emergency operations center full access to all state police computer system information now available to troopers through their in-car computers; developed specific plans with Troop L in Reading, Berks County, and PennDOT representatives for dealing with weather-related traffic incidents on I-78; and developed protocols for closures of interstate highways during weather-related incidents statewide.
During National Preparedness Month in September, dozens of communities throughout the state also worked to improve local preparedness. For example:
-Allegheny and Potter counties offered damage assessment training to provide emergency management coordinators, Citizen Corps and community emergency response team members with the tools they need to help their communities after a disaster;
-The American Red Cross in Philadelphia provided psychological first aid training so responders can better understand the factors that affect the stress levels of disaster relief workers and the clients they serve;
-The Schuylkill County Citizen Corps and Local Emergency Planning Committee sponsored Safety Preparedness Day at the Schuylkill Mall;
-During a blood drive in Sayre, the American Red Cross and Bradford County Citizen Corps teamed up to educate citizens on the importance of being prepared and having a healthy blood supply if disaster were to strike the area; and
-Lehigh County Emergency Management Agency sponsored a week-long series of emergency preparedness events, called “Get Ready Lehigh Valley.”
“The recommendations outlined in the Witt report are to the point and show the problems that have affected the commonwealth for years,” Rendell said. “We need this kind of brutal honesty to make sure we are better prepared to avoid similar emergencies in the future and to help us help those who find themselves trapped in these desperate situations.”