The debate rages at all levels, from the barbershop to the halls of Congress: How secure is our country from another terrorist attack? As a corollary, how prepared are our communities?
This year the state senate moved ahead to adopt a complete package of bills relating to emergency preparedness. As the former chairman of a special senate panel set up right after 9-11 to evaluate state and local emergency preparedness, I have a keen interest in making sure our communities are ready to handle an emergency.
The senate passed a comprehensive bundle of legislation that would greatly enhance the ability of state, local governments, businesses, and New York citizens to prepare and respond to any type of catastrophic event, whether man-made or natural, by requiring counties to put preparedness plans into place, establishing standards for evacuating and sheltering nursing homes during emergencies, and increasing penalties for individuals who tamper with power plants.
The senate package covers a wide range of disaster preparedness issues, reflecting a shift in the mission of homeland security to an “all-hazards” approach in which localities must be prepared for all manner of disaster.
The legislative plan passed by the senate contains the following:
• Local disaster preparedness plans – Central to the senate’s package is legislation requiring county governments to put preparedness plans in place now, before disaster strikes. Under current law, it is the responsibility of county governments to develop and implement plans, but the law is short on details. This new bill clarifies what steps must be put in place to provide optimal protection for New York’s citizens, including, an assessment of the county’s health care infrastructure, an updated roster of volunteer medical personnel, identification of a local stockpile of pharmaceuticals, and a strategy for identifying and coordinating emergency services organizations in the wake of a disaster (S.179-A).
• Protecting nuclear power facilities from terrorists – Senate bill 180 creates additional criminal penalties against unauthorized individuals who intentionally interfere with the safety operations of a nuclear powered electric generating facility.
• Continuity of government – succession to governor – Would amend the defense emergency act by delineating people eligible to succeed the governor in the event of a man-made or natural disaster, similar to presidential succession (S.177).
• Pet “friendly” shelters – Counties would have to consider those with pets when they look at where and how they will shelter people when they develop their disaster plans. During Hurricane Katrina, many people refused to evacuate their homes because shelters refused to allow pets (S.6913-A).
• Civil liability for falsely reporting an incident – S. 1568 would establish restitution in the event a person or government entity has been convicted of falsely reporting an incident involving the use of hazardous substances or materials. This type of compensation was designed for local governments throughout the state that have been victimized by false reports of hazardous substances.
• Standards for nursing homes during times of disaster – This bill would require the state Office of Homeland Security, in conjunction with the state Department of Health, to develop standards for nursing homes during a disaster emergency. It includes standards for food and water and keeping generators and staffing levels during the disaster. During Hurricane Katrina, several people died at St. Rita’s nursing home when the power went out and staff didn’t show up (S.6912).
• Protecting against terrorism – Would create new crimes and increase penalties for activities tied to terrorism including: agricultural and biological terrorism, cyber-terrorism and computer tampering, impersonating a pilot or member of a flight crew, and money laundering in support of terrorist activities. The bill would also give law enforcement the resources they need to properly investigate and prosecute individuals involved in terrorist activity (S.5605).
Senator Seward’s office web site is www.senatorjimseward.com.