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One year later: Security tighter, cities stretched

New security measures have put the budget squeeze on cities across the U.S. over the past year.
New security measures have put the budget squeeze on cities across the U.S. over the past year.  

By Dave Siff

(CNN) -- A year after the September 11 attacks, cities across the United States have taken steps to increase readiness for possible major terrorist strikes, yet concerns remain about their ability to respond to future attacks.

In January, a survey of 30 cities conducted in the weeks after the devastating attacks on New York and Washington found some cities more prepared than others.

Since then, cities in the original survey report that they have instituted more stringent security measures, modified incident response plans, and expanded efforts to train public and private sector employees. And on the national level, President Bush has proposed a new Cabinet-level agency the Department of Homeland Security to protect the nation and its cities.

Yet even as the nation continues to work to improve readiness, some of the major challenges that cities faced a year ago still loom large.

  • Questions remain about how well local, state and federal agencies are able to coordinate efforts one of the areas cited by experts as a concern in the original report in January.
  • Cities are challenged by the availability of funds to pay for enhancements to such areas of need as public health systems, emergency response systems, evacuation planning and intelligence gathering.
  • And, as experts noted in the January report, cities are challenged by many factors outside their control, in particular the element of surprise that is a hallmark of terrorist attacks.
  • A survey of 122 mayors, released in June by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, found that although 72 percent were satisfied with their city's preparedness plan, only one-third were satisfied with their ability to detect a threat. And more than three-fourths of those surveyed said they could not pay for threat detection and emergency response equipment.

    Addressing vulnerabilities

    Cities have forged ahead with broad efforts to assess and improve their preparedness since September 11.

    "Since September, all of the jurisdictions that were surveyed in the original review have undertaken a review of their emergency planning efforts and have, in most if not all cases, added additional resources to those efforts," said Peter Beering, the coordinator of Indianapolis Terrorism Preparedness, who is also an instructor in a federal training program on terrorism response. The Indiana resident was one of the experts consulted for's original report in January.

    In Los Angeles, California, for example, officials said they took a fresh look at key targets in the city, compiling a list of more than 400 separate locations. Security was tightened at municipal utilities and communications sites. "We've done a lot to look at where we're most vulnerable," said Bob Canfield, assistant general manager of the city's emergency preparedness department.

    Security has increased around public sites crucial to tourism and infrastructure, such as San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.
    Security has increased around public sites crucial to tourism and infrastructure, such as San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.  

    Officials in Austin, Texas, also conducted a review of possible targets, added surveillance systems and provided new training for all emergency workers. In New York and California, authorities increased security around bridges and other landmarks several times in response to information from the FBI about potential threats.

    Port cities are also getting a close look. New Orleans, Louisiana's, harbor police established an anti-terrorism task force, while officials in Detroit, Michigan, have coordinated on planning and training for waterway security with the U.S. Coast Guard and authorities across the border in Canada.

    In cities across the country, airports continue to be an area of concern, even as the federal government takes over control of security screeners. The federal government has also sought to tighten the nation's borders and to step up security along the coastline and at seaports.

    Beering believes one of the most significant improvements since September 11 is the heightened focus on improved communications and sharing of information among levels of government.

    "The most important thing that's been developed in the post-September environment has been the increased use of communications technology to share data," said Beering, who is also an instructor in a federal training program on terrorism preparation and response. "There are a variety of agencies federal, state and local who are gathering and disseminating information about incidents, threats and historical information that is potentially significant."

    In many cities, including Miami, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; Detroit; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Seattle, Washington, new divisions and councils have been created with broad responsibilities to deal with the threat of terrorism and other emergencies.

    Room for improvement

    Yet there remains significant room for improvement, according to experts and officials.

    One of the key challenges will be to continue to improve communication and coordination among agencies at all levels of government and the private sector, they say. This will be a central task of the proposed Department of Homeland Security.

    In testimony before a House Government Reform Subcommittee in August, the General Accounting Office Congress's investigative arm cited effective intergovernmental coordination as a key to success and laid out some of the big challenges that lie ahead.

    "Realistically, however, in the short term, the magnitude of the challenges facing the new department will clearly require substantial time and effort and will take additional resources to make it effective," said Paul Posner, the GAO's managing director for federal budget and strategic issues.

    Roles and responsibilities within and between levels of government and with the private sector are evolving and need to be clarified, Posner said in his testimony. Officials also need a baseline set of performance goals and measures upon which to assess and improve preparedness, especially considering that capabilities to respond to an attack vary widely across the country, he said.

    Counting the cost, and coming up short

    The new focus on security comes with a steep price tag in difficult economic times. Cities have called on the federal government for more assistance.

    "In an environment where 40-odd states are experiencing budget deficits and oftentimes solving those deficits, in part, on the backs of cities and towns, you're getting communities that are stressed by the increased demand to provide security services," said Mayor John DiStefano of New Haven, Connecticut.

    Local officials are concerned that, at the same time that cash-strapped cities are being asked to do more to counter terrorism, federal agencies are directing resources away from such areas as drug enforcement, creating an even greater burden for municipalities.

    "Most cities are having to do a lot of these things on their own dime," said Steve Charvat, director of training for the Washington, D.C., Emergency Management Agency. "They're lucky if they can do the bread-and-butter type disaster plans, much less everything that's been thrown on their plate since 9/11."

    Health care challenges

    Last year's anthrax attacks that killed five people exposed vulnerabilities in preparedness for bioterrorism and gave cities another area that demanded more manpower and resources.

    The U.S. Conference of Mayors survey found chemical and biological threats to be the biggest area of concern, far ahead of more typical disasters like hurricanes, floods or winter storms.

    Letters containing anthrax, including some mailed to congressional offices, prompted calls for increases in bioterrorism preparedness.
    Letters containing anthrax, including some mailed to congressional offices, prompted calls for increases in bioterrorism preparedness.  

    In response, cities have stepped up bioterrorism-related training, developed and implemented hospital coordination plans and purchased new equipment with an eye toward keeping any biological event to a manageable size.

    "There is no way to have an accordion-like health care system that will be able to expand to meet a massive epidemic without paying huge health care costs on an ongoing basis to keep it available," said Dr. Seth Foldy, health commissioner for Milwaukee, Wisconsin. "That's why we put the premium on prevention, on establishing systems for early identification."

    Heightened awareness

    Clearly, officials at all levels of government have become much more aware of the threat posed by terrorism. That, some officials say, has helped break down barriers that previously existed between agencies.

    "The thing that is different now than it was a year ago is that people are much more willing to put their private agendas and even egos on the side and bring the problem to the table, and find out in an integrated way how we can deal with it," said Terry Tullier, deputy chief of the New Orleans Fire Department and interim director of the city's Department of Emergency Management.

    The public has also become more involved, and officials report a significant increase in inquiries about volunteer programs.

    Indianapolis's Beering says a big challenge down the road may be to maintain that kind of awareness and involvement, especially considering the unpredictable nature of terrorist attacks.

    "We are dealing with an inherently elusive threat, and one where terrorists don't typically call and say, 'We're going to attack you on Monday at 9 o'clock,'" Beering said. "And so we have fragmentary information that is being gathered that does not typically paint a complete picture of what is likely or even what is possible."




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