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THURSDAY, JANUARY 4, 2007
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State gets mixed review from Homeland Security

By Ben Evans
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — Emergency agencies in an Alabama region extending east from Birmingham have done a good job using compatible communications equipment in everyday situations, but need a better plan for coordination in a disaster, the Department of Homeland Security said in a survey released Wednesday.

The report graded 75 urban areas across the country, measuring the ability of local agencies to talk to each other in a disaster. Generally, it found that cities, counties and states have stronger policies in place now than they did before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina revealed weaknesses in emergency communications.

But the department cautioned that regular testing and exercises are needed "to effectively link disparate systems" in an emergency and that "formalized governance (leadership and planning) across regions has lagged."

The Birmingham metropolitan area, chosen by the state to be graded in the report, includes Calhoun, Clay, Cleburne, Etowah, Jefferson, St. Clair, and Talladega counties, as well as cities such as Anniston, Gadsden, Pell City and Talladega. Homeland Security offered scores in three categories: operating procedures in place, regular use of compatible communications systems, and local government coordination in preparing for a disaster.

In the governance category, the report rated Birmingham as "intermediate," one score above its lowest grade.

"There are multiple governing bodies listed as responsible for creating and implementing the Tactical Interoperable Communications Plan . . . This many governance bodies can cause confusion," the report said.

It recommended clarifying decision-making authority and responsibility through formal agreements and ensuring that all local agencies participate.

For the area's operating procedures, Homeland Security gave Birmingham a higher score, ranking it as "established" because local governments have developed specific, updated policies and procedures. But it said counties appear to be developing individual plans, as opposed to a consolidated regional plan. That could complicate communications in the future, it said.

Finally, based on a multi-agency exercise conducted during October's NASCAR races at Talladega Superspeedway, the report gave Birmingham its highest score — "advanced" — for its on-the-ground use of interoperable equipment. Although it recommended further exercises, it said agencies across all disciplines and levels of government were able to effectively communicate in the exercise.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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