Chicago: Preparing for Disaster

March 13, 2006
How 9/11 and natural disasters have impacted emergency response in one of the largest cities in the country.

By Sandy Smith

Whether in a small town or a big city, terrorist attacks and natural disasters have caused emergency response managers to re-examine the programs, plans and equipment they have in place to respond to disaster.

We live in a "post" world: Post 9/11, post-Hurricane Katrina. The Sept. 11 attacks caused many major American cities to rethink emergency response plans and the availability of emergency response services and equipment. The total destruction and devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina shocked the nation, causing most cities and communities to wonder if they'd be able to handle such an event.

The city of Chicago covers 228 square miles and has a population of approximately 3 million. Mayor Richard M. Daley is a practical man. "No mayor can stand here and say that Chicago - or any other city in the world - will never have a terrorist attack," he notes. "But I can state that we have taken steps [since 9/11] that continue to make Chicago as safe as any city can be."

Many of Chicago's emergency response preparations require residents to be aware and involved of their own safety. Since the 9/11 attacks, Chicago has taken a number of steps to protect the city's residents and infrastructure, including participating in one of the largest disaster drills ever launched in the United States.

What If?

Unlike the residents of many large U.S. cities, those in Chicago have a pretty good idea of how the city and its responders will handle a major disaster. The best part is that a major disaster did not have to occur to acquire that knowledge.

The city's emergency systems were tested in the Top Officials 2 (TOPOFF 2) mock terrorism exercise in May 2002. TOPOFF 2, a congressionally mandated emergency response drill aimed at preparing U.S. cities for terrorist activity involving weapons of mass destruction, started May 12, 2002 and continued through May 16, 2002.

"This required a coordinated response from 16 city departments, six counties, three state agencies, nine federal departments, 40 hospitals, the public utilities, the schools, the park district and two mass transit agencies," said Daley.

The exercise consisted of simulated attacks in the Chicago and Seattle metropolitan areas. The state of Washington, King County, and the city of Seattle responded to a hypothetical explosion containing radioactive material. The state of Illinois; Cook, Lake, DuPage and Kane counties; and the city of Chicago responded to a covert release of a biological agent. Nineteen federal agencies and the American Red Cross were involved during the 5-day exercise. The national capital region, including the District of Columbia, Maryland, and the commonwealth of Virginia, participated in the first day of the exercise.

The exercise consisted of simulated WMD incidents and there was no release of any actual agents. While the exercise scenario, extent of damage and level of threat were based on a hypothetical situation and were not intended as a forecast of future terrorist-related events, they did reflect the current threat to the United States.

TOPOFF 2 enabled top officials and response personnel to practice different courses of action, gain and maintain situational awareness, and deploy appropriate resources. Top federal officials, state governors, county executives, mayors, city managers and state and local responders were key participants and played active roles throughout the exercise.

Over the five days of the exercise, federal, state, local and Canadian participants were engaged in unclassified and classified round-the-clock exercise play.

The goals of the TOPOFF 2 exercises were to improve the nation's capacity to manage extreme events; create broader frameworks for the operation of expert crisis and consequence management systems; validate authorities, strategies, plans, policies, procedures and protocols; and build a sustainable, systematic national exercise program to support the national strategy for homeland security.

The Illinois drill began with a covert release of a biological agent, and included the mass distribution of simulated pharmaceuticals, a mock disaster drill at Midway Airport and the staged arrest of suspected terrorists. The Office of Emergency Management and Communications coordinated the city's participation in TOPOFF 2. Several city departments - including aviation, fire, police and public health - played an active role during the exercise.

Unlike a real emergency response situation, Chicago had the luxury to begin preparing for TOPOFF 2 in October 2002. City officials took steps to ensure that the drill was managed and conducted in such a way as to minimize the impact the exercise had on citizens and traffic patterns. Areas where activity took place were clearly marked and secured for the safety of residents.

The goal of the city in participating in TOPOFF 2 was to better prepare for what the future might hold. City officials agreed that valuable lessons were learned: the importance of communication systems and warning systems; proper training and equipment for first responders; and surveillance of public areas.

That Was Then, This is Now

In January 2006, the city launched a new disaster preparedness campaign, Alert Chicago. In a letter on the Alert Chicago Web site, Daley noted, "Working together, we can make Chicago as prepared as any big city can be. When we work together, we can confront any emergency, whether it's a severe winter storm or a terrorist attack."

The initiative focuses on public awareness, says Andrew Velasquez, executive director for the Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC), who was joined by 29th Ward Alderman Isaac Carothers, CAPS Director Vance Henry, 311 Director Ted O'Keefe and other officials at the launch of the campaign.

"When disaster strikes, it is important that Chicagoans know what to do because personal preparedness can mean the difference between life and death," said Velasquez, who called the campaign "a positive and proactive initiative for educating and informing communities on how to protect themselves and their families from harm."

Alert Chicago is designed to provide simple and easy-to-follow instructions on how communities can prepare for emergencies, as well as how they should respond to various disaster scenarios.

Campaign materials include:

  • An Alert Chicago Web site at;
  • Public service announcements that will run on Chicago Transit Authoriy (CTA) buses and trains; and
  • An educational brochure that will be distributed at schools, libraries, CAPS meetings and Aldermanic offices.

"After Hurricane Katrina, Chicagoans voiced concerns about not knowing how to respond to natural disasters. As a result, the city created Alert Chicago to give residents the tools they need to respond to emergency situations," said Carothers. "But government cannot do it alone. Residents also need to take responsibility for getting themselves and their families prepared."

If a disaster strikes, Chicago has many ways of reaching out to and instructing the public, said Velasquez. "Whether it is through the media or our all-hazard alert warning system, what really matters is that residents know their plan and follow our instructions."

Some other disaster preparedness tips include:

  • Keeping an emergency supply kit in your home and office;
  • Establishing two meeting or "phone-in" locations for your family - one in your neighborhood and another outside of your area;
  • Posting emergency telephone numbers in your home and office;
  • Learning when to shut off water, gas and electricity at the main switches.

In the coming months, information on Alert Chicago will be made available in Spanish, Polish and Chinese.

Sounding the Alarm

Disseminating emergency warnings widely and quickly to Chicago residents became easier in May 2005, when Chicago transitioned from a weather alert warning to an all-hazard warning. OEMC is responsible for maintaining and operating public warning alert systems located throughout Chicago in the event of an emergency.

The system is designed to provide a single, recognizable and audible tone that alerts the public in the event of an emergency. The types of emergencies categorized in the all-hazard alert system include tornado warnings, earthquakes, chemical spills or biological hazards and terrorist attacks. The sirens are tested on the first Tuesday of every month at 10:00 a.m.

"Communities should pay attention to the sirens when they are tested, and use the opportunity to practice community and family response plans," added Velasquez.

Chicagoans are urged to pay attention to the sirens when they are tested and use the opportunity to think about and practice community and family response plans. When the alert sounds, the public will hear two tones: The tone that gives the warning about an emergency, and a tone that gives the all-clear.

A 3-minute wavering tone indicates there is a serious life-threatening emergency such as a tornado, earthquake, flash flood or chemical or biological attack. A national emergency would also fall under this category.

The public should immediately seek shelter and tune to local radio and television news stations for further information and evacuation procedures, if necessary. The public should not call 9-1-1 unless they have an actual emergency.

Shelter locations include interior rooms of buildings, home basements, or any reinforced structures away from glass. During a tornado or sever weather event, traveling motorists unable to seek suitable shelter are advised to quickly abandon the vehicle and remain flat on the ground to avoid flying debris.

A 3-minute steady tone signals the all-clear on the emergency, meaning there is no immediate or direct threat to the community.

Chicago currently has 112 sirens hoisted strategically on poles 1 to 2 miles apart throughout the city to ensure coverage. The pitch is loud enough to echo a high tone signal.

In addition to the alert system, the city has implemented additional communication systems and equipment. An emergency Telephone Notification System can call every phone in an area of the city at the rate of 1,000 calls per minute, even if the numbers are unlisted. The city can chose a message from a pre-recorded library or customize one with event-specific information on what residents should do.

Three years ago, Chicago purchased a highly specialized communications vehicle, developed by the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., which can provide rapid communications between emergency personnel and with officials far removed from the scene of the emergency by using satellite technology. It also can restore local area telephone service; provide nearly 100 telephone lines; act as its own cellular phone service; and assume the call-taking responsibilities of the city's 911 Center.

Chicago Fire Department

The Chicago Fire Department (CFD) shortly after 9/11 took steps to upgrade equipment, training and systems for first responders and fire fighters. The CFD purchased new equipment and increased training techniques in specialized areas for rescue teams, including urban search and rescue. The department acquired three new mass casualty rigs capable of treating large numbers of victims; two new hazardous materials rigs; 120 thermal imaging cameras that can "see" through smoke-filled rooms; and upgraded radios and computers. In addition, the city improved its training programs for city emergency personnel, in areas ranging from hazardous materials to high-rise rescues.

Last year, CFD Commissioner Cortez Trotter introduced a new Special Events Emergency Response Team (SERT). The SERT initiative will strengthen emergency response at Chicago major special events.

"Over the years, the services CFD has provided at every event have been of the highest level, but we can always do better. We must continue to find ways to even better protect and serve our people. SERT will work to strengthen our existing services. Simply put, we are adapting our emergency response and safety standards to meet the needs of an increasing number of event attendees," said Trotter.

He pointed out that attendance at city events is growing each year, and that larger crowds also cause greater congestion, making it difficult for regular ambulances, trucks and engines to get to those in need. "Therefore," said Trotter, "we must use vehicles that can maneuver through crowds and bring medical attention to injured victims or fire suppression to a fire or a hazmat situation."

The new SERT initiative will incorporate newly acquired SEGWAYs, mini response vehicles (MRVs) and a rehab, emergency shelter and triage (REST) tent.

Six new Segways will provide basic life support by a team of paramedic. Each Segway comes equipped the three pouches, which will contain first responder medical equipment including an automatic external defibrillator (AED) and basic first-aid items.

Two of the six new mini medical emergency and special support response vehicles will be equipped with sirens and lights, stretchers, advanced life support (ALS) medical equipment, a cardiac monitor and medications and they will function as mini ambulances. These will provide medical emergency support and transport, and will be staffed by two paramedics. One mini pumper will provide fire support suppression and hazardous material incidents. This mini pumper is equipped with a 60-gallon water and foam tank. Two mini utility vehicles will be used as special operations support for emergency incidents and one universal mini vehicle can be converted to EMS or suppression functions.

The REST area will be a new addition to all major events. Working in conjunction with the first aid trailer, the REST area is a fully equipped, larger triage, treatment and rehab area for civilians suffering from injuries that require medical attention at the scene of the event. This area will also serve as home base for the special event teams.

"As special events improve and evolve, so will the Chicago Fire Department," said Trotter.

Transit Safety

Residents riding mass transportation systems to events around the city will find themselves more closely monitored than before. Mass transit systems (i.e., Metra, CTA, Pace, Nictd, and AMTRAK) may be vulnerable to both accidents and terrorist incidents. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), as part of the city's update on increased security measures, in September 2005 completed a key portion of its system-wide fiber optic expansion that now allows CTA to connect security cameras along the 54th/Cermak branch of the Blue Line to its Control Center. The link between CTA's Control Center and the City's 9-1-1 Center is part of the Office of Emergency Management Communication's larger Homeland Security grid, which is designed to expand the use of surveillance cameras throughout Chicago.

"Security cameras are an increasingly important component of enhancing security on our system because they serve as a deterrent to crime and assist law enforcement in identifying perpetrators. They also provide additional information to our operations staff in the event of a service disruption," said CTA President Frank Kruesi. "The networking of this first set of cameras aligns with the city's overall effort to increase the presence of security cameras throughout Chicago."

Although CTA already coordinated efforts with the 9-1-1 Center, linking the two systems of security cameras will further enhance CTA's ability to share information as well as coordinate with the city during an emergency

"We operate an expansive system throughout the city and suburbs - 150 bus routes, 144 rail stations, elevated, subway and ground level - so it will take time to network the entire system, but this first group of stations is a significant step in the right direction and lays the groundwork for the connection to the 9-1-1 Center," said Chicago Transit Board Chairman Carole Brown.

All new rail stations, such as those recently renovated on the Blue Line's 54th/Cermak branch and the prior renovation of the Green Line, include fiber optics to allow networking of security cameras. In addition, the Blue Line from O'Hare to Jackson, the Red Line from Howard to Roosevelt and the Orange Line have all undergone fiber optic upgrades. New fiber optic installation is underway as part of current rehabilitation projects on the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line, the Brown Line and as part of CDOT's renovation of the State Street subway.

In addition, CTA has embarked on two key infrastructure projects that will result in increasing the number of cameras on the network. The first is a $31 million communication upgrade, which started last summer and includes installation of fiber optic cable and equipment at CTA rail stations, facilities and along tracks on the Yellow, Purple, Orange and Loop Elevated Lines, as well as on the O'Hare branch of the Blue Line and at Howard on the Red Line. The project is expected to take 2 years to complete.

The second is a $12.7 million subway security project that calls for the installation of security cameras at 22 subway stations and non-public areas. When complete at the end of 2006, nearly 800 security cameras will have been installed as part of this project and will then be added to the network.

In addition, CTA's entire bus fleet is equipped with security cameras. CTA began retrofitting buses with security cameras in 1998 and new buses purchased since then have all come equipped with cameras. By the end of 2003, all CTA buses were equipped with cameras, which have helped deter vandalism and graffiti, and assisted law enforcement in investigating incidents and apprehending perpetrators. Acknowledging the importance of security cameras, CTA included security cameras as part of the criteria in the bid specifications for new rail cars. Bids for manufacturers of new rail cars are currently under review with delivery not expected before 2008.

Aside from capital construction projects, where the cost of security cameras is included as part of the renovation, CTA needs an additional $20 million to install security cameras at all remaining rail stations and to connect them to the network. Funding for fiber optic installation is provided by a combination of grants from the Department of Homeland Security, other federal funding and Regional Transportation Authority bonds.

The CTA admits that funding and fiber optic systems only go so far. Customers truly are the eyes and ears of the CTA, and Chicago mass transit customers are warned to be aware and vigilant. CTA offers these tips to riders:

  • If you see something, say something. Report all suspicious parcels, bags or containers, (especially if they are left unattended) to the nearest employee.
  • Be alert. Take note of fire extinguishers and exits and read posted safety instructions.
  • In an emergency, try to stay calm. Listen to and follow instructions from transit employees or emergency personnel.
  • If able, try to help those around you. Assist people with disabilities, seniors and small children.
  • Only exit the train or the subway if you are in immediate danger or instructed to do so.
  • Subway tracks are dangerous and should be avoided. Never exit the train onto the tracks unless instructed to do so by emergency personnel. Avoid the third rail, which carries a dangerous electrical current.
  • The train/bus operator is your best source for information since they are in constant communication with control centers. If the Public Address system malfunctions, a crew member will walk through the transit cars and instruct patrons on evacuation procedures.
  • Only use cell phones if you absolutely must as they could interfere with emergency personnel equipment. Cell phones are unlikely to work in underground tunnels.

Message to Residents

Despite the preparations made by the city, the success of any emergency response plans comes down to the participation of the citizens of Chicago.

"Your first responsibility is to yourself and your family," Mayor Daley says of residents. "Keep a disaster supply kit in the home, and make sure your family knows what to do in an emergency, including how to shut off utilities at the main switches."

But as Daley pointed out, [The city] also has a responsibility to all the people of our city and our nation. Even though we haven't had a major terrorist attack in this country [since 9/11], we cannot let down our guard. If you see something suspicious or potentially dangerous, call the police. That was good advice right after September 11, 2001. It's good advice [now]."

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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