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Multi-agency coordination

 

In the aftermath of any terrorist attack, the emergency response on the ground would likely involve hundreds of offices and agencies across government and across the land.

 

That was the case in New York City, where dozens of agencies struggled to re-establish connections to the city’s Emergency Operations Center in the first hours and days of the tragedy.  Steve Touw, an On-Scene Coordinator with EPA’s Emergency Response team, arrived at the World Trade Center on the morning of September 12th, having spent the day before as a liaison to the city and FEMA and “finding out what the city needed from the federal EPA.”

 

Initially all the agencies were trying to re-establish communications. “Verizen just kept adding phone lines, as so many were out,” said Touw.

 

In days that followed, many national agencies would spill out of the D.C. area and head to New York’s Ground Zero. At its peak, there were some 30 different city, state and federal government agencies involved, more focused at the time on evidence collection than environmental health, but still calling for unprecedented coordination.

 

In a television interview with NBC a month after the attacks, FEMA’S Director Joe Allbaugh said,  “You have over 26 federal, state and local agencies working together, it’s an unbelievable site—folks working shoulder-to-shoulder; sifting over debris.  I mean fine-tooth comb with rakes and a lot of it by hand.  They pull out and segment, segregate the large items, the steel beams and whatnot.  But it is a thorough, thorough process, looking for any evidence, looking for individuals, remains of individuals, that we can help families bring closure to those questions that they’re asking right now.  I’m very impressed with the organization that they have.”

 

Matters were not so straightforward when it came to coordinating who was doing what with respect to environmental health.


Sept 21, 2001—FEMA rescue workers.
Photo: Michael Rieger/FEMA News Photo

At any one time, there were dozens of city, state and federal agencies responding and mobilized, many of them working 18 hour days. The city’s Fire Department directed the rescue and recovery, while the city Department of Design and Construction supervised the four contractors at the site. Several agencies shared air quality issues, including the federal EPA, the DOH and the State Department of Environmental Conservation.

 


But for every issue there were many overlapping agencies involved: like the issue of protecting the rescue workers from the toxic dust in the air.


“I was getting a little rubbery,” he remembers. “I had to come home and decompress.  But it was tough to sleep.”

 

“We met three times a day to discuss the level of respiratory protection needed and to analyze sampling data,” says McKinney.

 

Many of those representatives from those agencies say they much appreciated those regular calls and meetings to attempt to coordinate functions and eliminate duplication.

 

“God bless Kelly and his staff—for he put it under one command,” says Burger. ‘Anything affecting the environment was put under his command.”

 

Others say that the meetings got fairly contentious. “Many of the safety people were asking for the city and contractors to slow things down,” says Bruce Lippy. “You don’t work 12 hour shifts for two weeks in a collapsed structure without it getting to you.” For many, says Lippy, the psychological impacts alone were physically bruising.

 

When he came across a human hand with a candy bar still in it, he admits, he had to pause. “I was getting a little rubbery,” he remembers. “I had to come home and decompress.  But it was tough to sleep.”

 

The biggest criticism was that the environmental health effort lacked coordination. Among the problems Mt. Sinai’s Landrigan identified: A “disorganized approach to worker health and safety.” This, he feels, came about because of “unclear lines of authority.” Other problems that would crop up included a lack of health-based standards for certain chemicals that made their way into the air and water. “These problems,” Landrigan warned, “must be addressed and the necessary improvements to the system must be made, if mistakes are not to be repeated in future disasters.”