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9/11 Supercharged Interagency Coordination, Except The Ones That Could Have Responded To COVID

Courtesy of Pixabay

In 2001, the FBI didn’t have a way to share intelligence about terrorists. The Port Authority and New York Police Department rarely trained search and rescue together. In the aftermath of the attacks, when Suffolk Police went into Manhattan to secure sites for the NYPD, they couldn’t talk to each other on the radio.

All of that has changed. Stuart Cameron, Suffolk’s Acting Police Commissioner, holds up a handheld radio to prove it.

“I can go down into here. East East Hampton Police Department is in here. VHF, Nassau County PD, NYPD. I can talk to all those agencies,” Cameron says.

Of the many changes brought by the World Trade Center attacks, one of them has been a revolution in how government agencies work collaboratively. Cameron says interoperable radios were one of the first major changes after 9/11.

Another change was the newly formed Department of Homeland Security, whose mission was to coordinate national security between federal and local governments. DHS offered grant funding and joint training programs.

“I could bring together police officers from Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, the MTA, the Port Authority, and we could all be completely interoperable because you'd all have the same training or we’re all issued the same equipment,” Cameron says.

This interagency cooperation transcends terrorism, according to Cameron. It now includes things like missing persons, intelligence sharing, or regional crime patterns.

“A lot of this was inspired by 9/11, because there was a realization that the continental United States could be attacked in a very significant way,” he says.

Changes Across Sectors

Interagency cooperation for national security is only the most obvious example of hundreds of 9/11-inspired councils and programs.

For example, the Food and Drug Administration now coordinates local and private agencies to monitor the nation’s food supply. The Environmental Protection Agency developed mutual aid agreements between neighboring water utilities. Health and Human Services pays to train hospitals for medical surges like what happened with Superstorm Sandy, when coasts flooded in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

“We actually had hospitals that had to evacuate because we have hospitals on the south shore of Long Island,” says Connie Kraft, who directs the Metropolitan Area Regional Office Regional Training Center, New York’s downstate regional training center for hospitals. “We planned for that. We knew that these things were possible. So we were able to start our activation or response, looking at the resources, bringing in resources from outside of the area.”

Was Public Health Left Out?

This 9/11-inspired coordination made improvements to immediate disasters like hurricanes, but less was done to prepare for long-running public health crises like COVID-19.

“The biggest problems in COVID response was probably the local-state-federal communication issues,” says Jo Boufford, a clinical professor at New York University’s School Of Public Health.

Boufford vice-chairs the state’s Public Health and Health Planning Council. She says the lack of interagency cooperation was apparent in PPE supply chains, vaccine distribution or point-of-care options where people went to get treatment.

She says state health officials never developed a plan to use New York’s panoply of health providers like primary care physicians, outpatient clinics and community health centers, even as hospital beds were scarce and their workers burned out.

“I think there's a huge loss, because as we saw in COVID, the messaging was all about come to the hospital, come to the hospital,” she says. “At the same time that other providers of care were feeling they could have made much more of a contribution.”

Boufford says local health officials don’t have the well-funded training programs that police departments and hospitals have. Most local health departments typically attend one annual meeting a year.

“Sometimes they have difficulty paying travel for their local health directors to come,” she says. “In the last couple of years, I think they have reverted more to telephone activities,”

In a draft report on the state’s COVID response, Boufford’s planning council recommends more coordination among local public health departments, the state, and the entire spectrum of healthcare providers.

The problem, she says, is maintaining the attention of elected officials.

“Which is hard to do between emergencies, except with political leadership that has an orientation towards the idea of interagency collaboration,” she says.

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.