Right after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, local and county governments pledged to implement a host of safety measures and to improve communication during emergencies. Ten years later, some of those programs are in place, but others seem to have barely gotten off the ground.
Officials say that federal funding is running dry for certain initiatives.
Although it is the smallest county in the state, Hudson County is the home of the Lincoln Tunnel, the Holland Tunnel, Hoboken Terminal, Secaucus Junction, the western Hudson River waterfront, and more than 630,000 residents. The county is at the top of the statewide funding recipient list for Homeland Security monies.
Hudson County is still implementing measures that it introduced after 9/11.
-A countywide AM radio station for announcements. It’s in the process of being implemented but so far does not exist.
-A citywide public address system for Hoboken. The Hoboken City Council voted to approve it in 2007 but it still has not been implemented.
-Sirens throughout the county. These have been installed in almost every town.
- Community Emergency Response Teams (C.E.R.T), a federal initiative to organize volunteers in each town for emergencies. Several towns do have CERT teams that helped out during the recent hurricane.
-Various other initiatives.
Sirens in place, radio on hold
Jack Burns, the executive director of the Hudson County Office of Emergency Management, said that a county siren system is now operational.
“It was a long, long process, but they’re up and running,” he said.
In fact, recently, the alarms throughout the county were sounded for a 9/11 remembrance ceremony, something that certain residents criticized because they said the alarms should only be used for emergencies.
There are eight sirens in Jersey City, four in Bayonne, one in Hoboken by the downtown PATH station, one in Weehawken near the New York Waterway ferry terminal, and others located throughout northern Hudson County and Secaucus. They were funded with a $795,000 Homeland Security grant from 2006.
Burns chairs a committee of about 14 people who decide how the federal money gets spent each year. The committee includes people from the Office of the Hudson County Prosecutor, local fire and police departments, local OEM offices, and hazmat teams.
Burns said that the proposed AM radio station is still in the works, and an antenna will be erected in Jersey City. He said that the introduction of the station has been delayed due to changes by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and that the county had to find an AM station that is not used in the area.
He said that when there is an emergency, people will be able to listen to the station to hear the latest updates from the county.
“If you hear the sirens, that’s the cue to tune into the radio station,” he said. “We can also put on the station public announcements such as street fairs, commercial enterprises, advertisements, but political advertisements would not be allowed.”
Mayor Richard Turner of Weehawken said that an AM station may not be needed as much as years ago, since various other emergency communication measures have been implemented in the last few years. He said the federal Department of Homeland Security has given much funding for upgrades to communications equipment for emergency responders.
“We all use reverse 911,” Turner said, referring to a system in which cities automatically phone citizens with emergency information. “My impression is, I’d have to say the upgrading the equipment for the emergency response personnel has been tremendous, whether ambulance squads, police, or fire. The communications, even radios, have been upgraded. We have a much better communication system. I think the last hurricane showed it. You have flood zones depicted and where problems are and how to deal with them.”
He noted that his town has a trained volunteer rescue squad, and that the members of the Township Council were also trained for emergencies.
He said that the North Hudson Fire and Rescue Squad has purchased and upgraded equipment with federal funds, including a trailer full of emergency supplies.
“As far as technology,” he said, “you never have everything you want, but we have a tremendous amount of modern equipment now.”
Where are the speakers?
Meanwhile, in Hoboken, the City Council voted in 2007 to pay for loudspeakers to be placed throughout the city at approximately 50 locations. Longtime Hoboken residents remember that decades ago, the city had a speaker system that announced school closings and emergency information. The new system was to be charged with doing the same.
In 2007, city officials said they expected the cost of the system to be between $210,000 and $240,000.
The loudspeakers reportedly installed, but were put on hold in 2010 for “legal reasons,” according to a Hoboken OEM official.
The city has implemented a texting and e-mail system that sends alerts to members of the public. But the speakers remain inoperable.
City Business Administrator Arch Liston said last week that the system was never “fully complete[d]”, although he did not elaborate. He said the mayor’s office would like to have the City Council pass a bond to finish it.
Another countywide initiative from after Sept. 11 was the introduction of CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams). Made up of trained volunteers, CERT teams assist law enforcement and emergency services when disasters strike. During the recent hurricane, the Hoboken CERT team posted memos from the city around town, and helped man the emergency shelter.
“The CERT team has moved fairly well in Hudson County, but we could always use more people,” Burns said. “There’s nothing better than having trained, organized people that we could use during events.”
Each municipality established its own CERT team with the help of the county.
Much of the Homeland Security type improvements around the county are paid for by the federal government.
“Population risk and the vulnerability threat are the overriding factors of who gets what [financially],” Burns said. “Hudson County, for the last five years, has been the lead county [in terms of funding] even though we’re the smallest one geographically.”
However, the funding from the federal government has recently been cut.
“In 2011 our funding was cut 50 percent,” Burns said. “It’s going to be cut by another 50 percent [next year].”
In 2010, Burns said the Office of Emergency Management ran on a $2 million budget. The 2011 budget was for $985,000, and the upcoming year’s budget will be around $450,000, due to federal cuts.
“It’s not just affecting us,” Burns said. “It’s around the country. It was bound to [affect us] at some point.”
The chain of money goes from the federal government, to the state, and then to the counties. From there, Burns and his team allocate the money.
“We decide where the funding that we get will be spent,” he said. “The only caveat that we have is that we are not here to take care of any specific towns, but we’re here to enhance the capabilities of the county as a whole.”
Secaucus has lobbied for monies in the past, saying the town is a major transportation hub. Mayor Michael Gonnelli of Secaucus said in 2010 that he believed the town should receive funding for a fire boat, but the county OEM said funds weren’t able to be used for that purpose.
“There are some constraints on how the money can be used,” Burns said last week.
The Hudson County Sheriff’s Department also is dealing with low funding.
“With funding shrinking everywhere, my office has been doing more with less,” said Sheriff Frank Schillari. “We’ve moved to a 24/7 schedule that allows us to protect the county round the clock while reducing overtime costs.”
As a direct response to Sept. 11, Schillari said that the department has “increased [their] response throughout the entire county,” and more county personnel are assigned to federal agencies. The members of the Hudson County Sheriff’s Department work alongside federal agencies, he said.
Schillari said his department also needs more money.
“In order to combat the constant threat of terrorism in and against the United States, more specifically here in Hudson County, we need more resources,” Schillari said. “[We need] money from the federal government to hire more officers and purchase the equipment needed to continue to do our duties.”
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com