Are we ready for an emergency? Can we protect property and life if a disaster strikes? Can we communicate across the county and between cities and counties in a widespread catastrophe?
These questions were asked by the Legislative Audit Bureau in a recent audit. The findings were disturbing and reveal that even with massive investments by the federal government through the Office of Homeland Security, there is still quite a bit of work to do to prepare for an emergency.
Over five years the feds invested $315.5 million to prepare Wisconsin for an emergency - whether a natural disaster or an attack by hostile forces.
The audit looked at whether the money was properly spent and - a different question - whether the money was used to address the most pressing problems of emergency management in the state. The answer was ‘yes’ to the first question - all the money was properly spent. But ‘no’ to the second question; there are very important needs in the state that remain unaddressed.
The state auditors made note that all funds were spent in accordance with federal guidelines. But these rules are very broad and allow the funds to be spent on travel, conferences, personnel and office operations. Yet the most pressing state need is for equipment; particularly equipment to communicate.
When disaster strikes, communication is paramount. Local units of government and emergency management officials must be able to reach each other and make arrangements to move personnel and equipment where it is most needed. For coordination among units of government to work, there must be compatible equipment and adequate radio towers to relay signals.
The auditors reported that Wisconsin does not have an ‘interoperable’ communication system or one that allows for different units of government to communicate in a large emergency. There are plans to move to a state-wide system in 2011, but these plans place responsibility for purchasing new equipment with local government. Equipment costs are unknown - which seems amazing to me given the time line the state agency has placed on getting the new system in place. And local governments, long starved for money, are in no position to make expensive purchases without state or federal assistance.
Solving the problems is not simple. The money is coming from the federal government. So State Legislators cannot pass a law requiring an agency to move the money from one priority to another. We must instead cajole the federal government into tightening its rules.
Another problem - where we may have more influence - is one of “dual command”.
The state puts responsibility for emergency preparation in two separate agencies: Emergency Management in the Department of Military Affairs is the agency responsible for planning and the Office of Justice Assistance (OJA) distributes most of the money. One agency determines where money is most needed but it’s the other agency with the authority to give out the money.
To bring light to these problems and the potential disasters that come if they are not solved, I and my co-chair on the Audit Committee called a public hearing. On September 7th at ten in the morning, we will convene the Joint Committee on Audit and ask the directors of the agencies responsible for Emergency Management to answer the questions raised by the audit.
The committee hearing is open to the public and will be broadcast on Wisconsin Eye (Wisconsin’s version of C-Span). Anyone may testify at the hearing or offer written testimony. If you have comments you would like included in the public record but cannot make it to Madison on September 7th, please consider emailing or writing your comments and I will make sure they are copied and distributed to all committee members.
If you have further questions, please contact me toll free at 877-763-6636 or firstname.lastname@example.org or State Capitol PO Box 7882 Madison, Wisconsin 53707.