What we have here is a failure to communicate

The Department of Homeland Security might just as well have been named the Department of Scary Talk, and this week its secretary, Michael Chertoff, had some for the public.

Because of turf wars and inertia, the first responders _ police, fire fighters, emergency medical services _ are still largely unable to talk to each other, and thus coordinate their rescue efforts, in the event of a large-scale crisis _ despite the billions the federal government has spent post-9/11.

Chertoff told a conference in Washington, “What these various turf issues mean _ or these lack of priority issues mean _ is that first responders, even if they’re given the tools, don’t have the availability to use these tools to share vital information. And therefore lives and property are put at risk.”

One of the first and most significant lessons of the attack on the World Trade Center was that the disaster was made worse _ fire fighters were unaware they were slogging to certain death because their superiors couldn’t warn them off _ because of communications gaps and incompatibilities among the emergency services.

Homeland Security has spent $2.1 billion to remedy those deficiencies, without satisfactory results, according to Chertoff. He is backed by a report card of the former 9/11 Commission that found it “scandalous” that big-city first responders “still cannot communicate reliably in a major crisis.”

First-responder organizations contacted by the Associated Press said the federal money was insufficient to solve the problem _ “does not even begin to address it,” said one police chief. Others cited the technical problems of linking first responders in large metropolitan areas with multiple police, fire and medical services.

Much of that is undoubtedly true, but it is eerily reminiscent of the circular and futile education argument over funding for education. As in the schools, first-responder communications will work best with states and local governments taking the lead and the federal government standing by with funds to pay for progress and reward success.

Chertoff’s role is to help achieve that progress by praising, criticizing, cajoling, berating, goading, spotlighting and, yes, engaging in scary talk.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)