Should you huddle in your home, or escape by train or car?
Some local officials are loath to release emergency plans to the public, even five years after the Sept. 11 disaster.
They say they are putting the public at risk by answering certain questions. Is it better to know, or to not know how to respond?
Who has answers?
Police officer Captain Joseph Kickey, the head of the Secaucus Office of Emergency Management (OEM), seemed confident that his town was ready for whatever emergency may come its way.
"We're as ready as can be," he said. "Our emergency operating plan has been approved by the state OEM. The plan has been approved for the next four years."
Kickey noted that there was a set plan for each different type of emergency, such as flooding, and for each part of an emergency operation, such as an evacuation, providing shelters, and police and fire personnel responsibilities.
If an emergency takes place, then the planning wheels carefully constructed by Kickey and his co-workers would go into motion.
"Mayor Elwell and I would be notified that a state of emergency had been declared," he said. "We would then activate the OEM. Anyone that was available would then respond to the emergency operating center and determine what was needed depending on the type of the emergency involved."
The OEM has been in existence since the 1950's. Originally known as the Office of Civil Defense and geared for the aftermath of a nuclear attack, the name was changed in the 1970's in order to accommodate a broader range of potential emergency situations. Kickey pointed out that as technology has improved, so have the abilities of the state and local OEMs.
"We go to various trainings on the state and county level," he said. "There are even some classes online now. We obtain equipment from the county, state, and the federal Department Homeland Security, as we need it."
Access to updated equipment includes the ability to use the new Hudson County emergency mobile command center, introduced in May 2006.
"The new mobile command and communications vehicle is available to any municipal OEM in the area," Kickey said. "We can bring it on site to any location in Secaucus or the surrounding area if necessary."
Jersey City smacked by feds
In Jersey City, the city refuses to release its plan to the public for safety reasons, but got slapped by the federal government recently for not being prepared.
Two months ago, the federal Department of Homeland Security concluded that the city's plan for responding to catastrophic disasters flunked 14 out of 45 benchmarks.
Following the release of that information, the city refused to release its report to the media. Mayor Jerramiah Healy did say that city officials would meet to respond to the problems cited by the federal government.
But he also blamed a lack of funding, and said that Jersey City was far from the only community that was unprepared.
"I have been briefed on the National Plan Review conducted by the Department of Homeland Security, and have been advised by the Office of Emergency Management staff, and Captain McGill that our plan is in need of improvement," said Mayor Healy in a statement last month. "New projects to be implemented include waterfront initiatives that will create exclusion zones and closed-circuit television monitoring to enhance security efforts along the waterfront area. The inadequacies mentioned are not unique to Jersey City, but speak for all of the 75 urban areas reviewed."
According to a local daily newspaper, the federal government had found that the city "has not taken into account that more than 40 percent of its resident don't own cars and rely on public transportation" and the plan didn't include residents in hospitals or with special needs.
Last week, City Council president Mariano Vega Jr. said that the council will be working to fix the problems, and has created a subcommittee for homeland security.
According to Jack Burns, Hudson County's OEM coordinator, Jersey City is already working internally to make changes to their Emergency Operations Plan.
"[Jersey City] is not as bad as everyone is making it out to be," Burns said. "I can find holes in anyone's plan. No one is perfect."
Broadcasts for citizens
But Burns agreed that citizens should have more information about what is being done.
"The feedback we get from citizens is 'Yes, you're prepared, but we don't know what we are doing,' " he said last week. "I'd rather scare the residents now and have them prepared. They'll be less fearful during an emergency if they are prepared prior to it."
County and local agencies are working on two fronts: One, coordinating their emergency response, and two, figuring out to how get information out to the public, both before and during emergencies. However, they are moving slowly on the second front.
County officials cited specific plans underway including creating a pamphlet for the public on emergency planning; creating a county AM radio station for emergency broadcasts, and even installing loud speakers in certain towns. Those plans have not yet come to fruition.
Every municipality, in accordance with its county and state Offices of Emergency Management, has a city/town-appointed coordinator for their respective OEM. Most are part-time.
Each municipal OEM is responsible for coordinating the efforts of the first responders at the scene of an emergency and educating the public of what to do in an emergency situation.
So what would happen if a radioactive "dirty bomb" exploded in New York City tomorrow?
A "dirty bomb" is a pack of explosives to which radioactive materials have been added in order to spread the effect. Obviously, the air in Hudson County's towns, right across the river, would be affected.
According to Burns, New York has a plan for evacuation in case of a disaster. The population for all of NYC is segmented, and approximately 250,000 people could be sent to shelters in New Jersey via the Lincoln Tunnel, Holland Tunnel, and George Washington Bridge.
But how would it affect Hudson County residents? Should they stay in their homes, or flee?
"It depends on the incident and where it happens," Burns said.
"The best advice initially for most things is stay in your home until you get further guidance," said Gary Garetano, the assistant director of the Hudson Regional Health Commission, a countywide agency that is constantly dealing with bioterrorism preparedness. "If a dirty bomb were to blow up, [and] if you went outside and a radioactive dust cloud was passing, you might be exposing yourself more than in the house. You don't need to duct tape everything, but shut the windows and doors and that sort of thing."
The Hudson Regional Health Commission, based in Secaucus, has been involved in drills with hospitals, as well as attending the quarterly meetings that are constantly held with municipal emergency management coordinators in all towns. The HRHC has received extra funding since 2001 to deal with the health aspects of terrorism, including disease outbreaks and contamination.
Garetano said that local emergency planning has improved greatly in the last five years.
"There's enhanced collaboration between all levels of government, municipal, county, state and federal, as well as between all disciplines," Garetano said. "In 2001, we had very rare communications with hospitals. Now it's almost daily. We've been participating in joint planning, exercises, and figuring out what's going on."
But how would you get instructions?
If there was a bioterrorism disaster, such as a dirty bomb or release of gas, would people be able to get further instructions right away?
Garetano and other officials cited various projects in progress.
The county will soon be setting up its own AM radio station. There is also a countywide phone calling system called Callmaster. Within the towns, Hoboken is researching a loudspeaker system, according to Fitzsimmons.
It seems, however, that residents must wait a bit to see all of these plans enacted.
What if a dirty bomb was dropped tomorrow?
"Would there be confusion initially?" Garetano asked. "I would think right away there would be, but am I confident that we are prepared and on the same page and able to respond much more quickly than five years ago? The answer is yes."
The HRHC has acquired ham radios to trade information among the government and volunteers in case other lines of communication are down, and there is a Health Alert Network to send information by e-mail to 3,500 doctors and other caregivers in terms of other health threats. An automated system will soon be implemented in 36 hospitals in Northeastern New Jersey's six counties to alert health officials at any time of day if there is a spike in patients with certain diseases or complaints.
There is also an effort involving the HRHC and county OEM to install a radiation monitoring network to figure out which parts of the county are most affected if a bomb goes off.
There is also a countywide preparedness pamphlet underway for the public, Garetano said.
"There are more meetings than you could imagine," Garetano said.
What one resident would do?
Hoboken's Janet Larson, while stressing that she is not an expert, responded to a question of what she herself would do if there were a dirty bomb attack across the river.
"Whatever plans they have for evacuations have to be coordinated with New York City," she said. "If there was a bomb, how would I know? I'd probably hear it. I might see a light in the sky. I would grab my getaway bag and probably go down to the basement where I have food stocked, and water and blankets. I also have a radio down there and batteries. I have worked out my own escape routes from town by car [if an escape was needed], but I doubt if I could use them. There would be huge traffic jams. There is also a radioactive cloud that would pass, and it would be better to wait in my house for about three days and wait for an all-clear. But I don't know how the city will tell me it's safe to come out. People should barricade themselves as best they can ...well, I'm not an expert, but that's what I'd do. I have water in the basement. I'd probably take my cell phone down there, but cell phones [might not] be working. That's something to mention for other types of emergencies."
In a more serious nuclear attack, which would be more expansive than a dirty bomb, certain devices like cars would not work for a period of time.
"People whose clothes, for instance, are contaminated, will spread radioactive dust wherever they go," Larson said. "This is a big reason the public needs to be informed ahead of time and given instructions from authorities immediately after an event. Public health authorities should be organized to deal with contamination incidents...It's not automatic 'curtains.' "
The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta have specific explanations on the Web for how to prepare for a "dirty bomb" and other terrorist attacks (see sidebar).
One thing that the Hoboken citizens' group did before it disbanded was to host a countywide seminar for area residents on bioterrorist threats. It was held on a Saturday in May of 2004 in Hoboken, and was lightly attended.
At the hearing, Garetano said, in response to questions about a dirty bomb, "There is a more significant threat from the [force of the] explosion, while the radiation is added to create fear and panic. It takes massive, massive doses [to hurt a large number of people]."
Monique Davis, a health educator with the HRHC, said that spreading infectious diseases, or bioterrorism, is less expensive for terrorists than other kinds. She said that health officials would become aware of bioterrorism if rare diseases like anthrax, ebola or smallpox got into the air or food supply.
The government has a National Pharmaceutical Stockpile in case of outbreaks of a certain disease, and Hudson County has run drills to see how quickly they could dispense drugs and treat the public from various "POD" (Point of Distribution) sites. During a recent drill at New Jersey City University, they were able to assist 1,000 people per hour.
You can volunteer
Larson and Garetano noted that most (but not all) Hudson County towns are presently training local volunteers to join CERTs, or individual Community Emergency Response Teams.
In addition, the HRHC is seeking all sorts of volunteers for a countywide Medical Reserve Corps, which currently has 100 volunteers who are not medical professionals.
Hoboken or Bayonne do not yet have CERTs.
Both towns say they are working on it.
"We want to train people who will be here when an emergency happens and be able to organize as a group quickly," Fitzsimmons said. "It's all volunteers. There is no compensation, just a good Samaritan effort."
CERT training is a 20-hour course taught over eight 2.5-hour classes. Volunteers are trained in the basics of firefighting, search and rescue, first aid, disaster psychology, evacuation leverage, public service, disaster preparedness, and team organization.
The only municipalities with existing CERT teams are Guttenberg, Weehawken, Union City, Jersey City, and the countywide team.
Garetano would like to see more people in the Medical Reserve Corps, and interested parties can call (201) 223-1133 and ask for Annie McNair.
Have your kit
When it comes down to it, Larson said, people should at least prepare kits to use in an emergency.
"People should have three days' supply of water, canned goods, nonperishable food for their family and pets," she said. "They should have a stash of things that you would need to survive on."
A getaway bag is also something that residents should have prepared for an emergency.
"The Red Cross and other emergency management websites have lists of what to include in getaway kits," she said. "You should have clothes, vitamins, medications, books, the essentials that you would need if you had to leave quickly."
Larson says the public should remain vigilant.
"If people are ignorant," Larson said, "they will be in trouble."
Reporter staff writer Caren Lissner and Mark Bonamo contributed to this story. SIDEBAR 1
Centers for Disease Control emergency planning
Even if local officials can't release specific information, there are helpful directions regarding various emergencies on the Centers for Disease Control emergency preparedness web site at http://www.bt.cdc.gov.
The site covers bioterrorism, radiation, natural disasters, and a host of other specific catastrophes.
Specific topics include what to do in case of a dirty bomb, release of sarin gas (an odorless gas that can shut down people's organs and muscles), and other bioterrorist attacks.
The site notes that whether to stay or to run may depend on where the plume of radiation or gas is heading. But it advises citizens to listen and watch for emergency broadcast information.
The site specifically for dirty bombs is: http://www.bt.cdc.gov/radiation/dirtybombs.asp.
The site for sarin gas is: http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/sarin/basics/facts.asp.
Locally, the Hudson Regional Health Commission has some information at: www.hudsonregionalhealth.org.
Meanwhile, the CDC recommends that people keep the following in a safe, secure place for emergencies:
· A flashlight with extra batteries
· A portable radio with extra batteries
· Bottled water
· Canned and packaged food
· A hand-operated can opener
· A first-aid kit
· Essential prescription medications
· Personal items such as toilet paper and trash bags. "Citizens should advocate now for government policies and procedures that will make us safer in any emergency," said Hoboken resident Janet Larson. "Pick one and go for it!" - CL
Government succession during a disaster
The Hudson County Office of Emergency Management is working on two pieces of state legislation: the Continuity of Operations (COOP) and Continuity of Government (COG), which are expected to be signed on Oct. 1, 2006 and Oct. 1, 2007 respectively.
The COOP, according to County OEM Coordinator Jack Burns, will deal directly with what the municipality needs to continue government and services for residents during a disaster.
COG will specifically create a line of succession in government for procedures during a disaster.
The municipalities in Hudson County have mutual aid between fire, police, and emergency medical services to assist each other during a disaster.
"The fire departments have had a mutual aid pact for years, and in 2005, the police departments signed a formal memorandum of understanding, stating that they will provide assistance to the other municipalities in the case of an emergency," said Burns.
Jersey City also has a mutual aid pact with New York City, and, along with Hoboken and Bayonne, works closely with the Port Authority on emergency preparedness and management planning.
"The county and municipality OEMs have been meeting to make sure everyone is on board and working together," Burns said.
Recently, a communications vehicle was purchased for the county. It will work as a dispatch, command, and communications center for fire, police and EMS.
"[The communications vehicle] will be a source of information - educational things and information on disasters," Burns said.
Burns said, "We are a lot better off since September 11, 2001." - RK