Planning nonstop for Michigan responders since 9/11

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Romulus — A simulated plane crash prompted a swarm of first responders — some from miles away — to converge on Detroit Metropolitan Airport with coordinated precision and communication to save lives and deal with the reality of death.

At the Mall of Monroe, a masked trio posing as terrorists staged a pseudo attack on a crowded mall this summer, taking hostages until police from various agencies secured their rescue.

Fourteen years after 9/11 changed the world, emergency responses are planned, updated, studied and practiced repeatedly to gauge the level at which Michigan responders and their federal partners are prepared to react to crises — from plane crashes to natural disasters to a full-blown terrorist attack.

The biggest improvement, government and experts say, is in communication, with coordinated and shared channels and technology upgrades that allow situations to be dealt with swiftly by a myriad of agencies.

“Preparedness is critical,” said Andy Arena, the former special agent in charge of the FBI in Detroit. “When you’re looking at this, what are the threats, what are the potential targets and how do you protect those? And if something goes bad, how do you deal with it? Those are the things you are looking at in emergency management and emergency preparedness.”

Asked about the biggest security change since 9/11, he said: “The communication between the different agencies is much better, the sharing of information. I think it’s being taken much more seriously because you can see what can happen if there is an incident and what it can cost in lives and money,” he said.

The prospect of terrorism and disasters requires constant vigilance and preparation, said those in charge of keeping Metro Detroit safe.

“We have to plan for virtually any contingency,” said Thomas Naughton, the CEO of the Wayne County Airport Authority which hosted the live fire rescue training exercises this summer. “We do prepare. We have a formal plan. And on a fairly regular basis, we’re tested by federal agencies.”

While security officials won’t reveal specific targets in the region, they say that targets generally include ballparks and stadiums, schools, shopping malls, bridges and airports.

“Detroit is unique because of the border (with Canada), an aspect you wouldn’t have in Columbus, Ohio, or Des Moines, Iowa,” Arena said. “What you are looking at is your critical infrastructures, your power grids, your round-trip transportation, the bridges, tunnels, the water supply.”

Detroit has taken protection very seriously, regularly staging exercises with the state for disaster preparedness, replacing outdated analog emergency warning sirens with digital ones and doubling the amount of total sirens. The city used $2 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to create a state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center to help manage any situation ranging form a natural disaster to a terrorist attack.

“The lion’s share of our work is planning,” said Lawrence Meyer, the city’s director of homeland security and emergency management, “and being prepared for any type of hazard, any type of critical incident, any type of situation that can harm the citizens of the city of Detroit, disrupt commerce, or any way cause damage to the city.”

Since 2009, FEMA has allocated nearly $55.5 million in grants to the Southeastern Michigan region through the Homeland Security Grant Program to help fund planning and equipment and training to protect against terrorism and other catastrophic events, and the Emergency Management Performance Grant that provides assistance to the state and local governments to deal with natural disasters such as tornadoes, flooding and terrorism, state officials said.

Some of the equipment purchased through FEMA funds are search and rescue boats and equipment to sift through collapsed buildings, officials said.

In exchange for the federal funds, each recipient must participate in exercises and complete training courses along with keeping emergency operations plans up to date, said Ron Leix, spokesman for the Emergency Management and Homeland Security division of the Michigan State Police.

Tony Cuevas is commander of the Monroe post of the state police that handled the Mall of Monroe shooting-hostage simulation. Cuevas said the “old way” of responding to situations prior to the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado had officers treating active shooter scenarios “like barricaded gunmen where we would surround the building and send in a SWAT team to talk the person out.”

“Now, officers act in small units and actually go in to the venue where the shooter is actively shooting and take out the threats,” Cuevas said. “There’s no longer that inaction. Everything is action. Then you look at technology. Back then, a lot of police agencies didn’t even have patrol rifles. Many of these shooters are armed with semi-automatic weapons. Law enforcement has since upgraded their arsenal to at least match what these people have.”

When he thinks about potential targets, Cuevas said he thinks of “large public gathering points because those are the ones that are going to catch the biggest amount of attention if something were to happen.” These exercises are beneficial, he said, because they identify weaknesses.

At Metro Airport, Naughton and his team have practiced real-life events like the simulated crash and staying in communication “on a very, very regular basis with all the federal agencies and local agencies certainly with customs, and border protection, homeland security and TSA, the FBI.”

David DiMaria, the director of special services at Metro Airport, oversaw the simulated plane crash that involved about 100 pretend passengers. He said technological advances have significantly helped first responders. Their exercise involved several municipalities responding with ambulances and fire trucks.

Some of the upgrades, he said, include such firetruck components such as infrared lights to see through smoke and nozzles to pierce the side of an aircraft to deliver water right inside the fuselage.

One major change is that state has provided one channel on which every first responding agency can coordinate.

“It’s exercises like this that allow us to be prepared because quite frankly, we need training every month with our public safety folks,” DiMaria said. “I feel very confident that if a situation comes our way that we can respond to it..”

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Twitter: @leonardnfleming