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First question in a disaster

Whether it's a terrorist strike or a devastating hurricane, first responders and others trying to help in a disaster need one urgent question answered: Who's in charge? Without a firm and understood command structure, lives can be lost.

Hurricane Katrina served as an unfortunate reminder of this. So did a recent release of documents by Louisiana's governor. The communication records illustrate not only confusion over command in dealing with the crisis, but rivalries and PR questions (does this make the governor or the president look good?) that compounded the problem.

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In case the nation needs another reminder (and it does), the 9/11 commission offered one last week. In the final report card on the implementation of its July 2004 recommendations, it gave a "C" to emergency response agencies nationwide in adopting a chain of command that works with multiple departments and layers of government.

At the local level, the person in charge may be a mayor, sheriff, or county executive reporting to a state emergency manager, state police, or a governor. It varies around the country, and that's fine. But the chain of command must be established and agreed to - and regularly tested - before a disaster hits. Otherwise, turf wars or sheer confusion set in.

Some disaster-tested states such as California and Florida appear to have lines of command pretty much down pat. California served as a model for the Department of Homeland Security's 2005 "National Response Plan." The DHS plan emphasizes local response but also outlines how the federal government can support state and local efforts when an incident rises to national significance. The plan went unused for Katrina.

Some governments are still working their way through these decisions. Four years after 9/11, New York City finally knows who'll call the shots in a major disaster: the police commissioner. That's Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan, which he announced Sept. 30. The decision was tough because of interagency rivalries. Mr. Bloomberg is working with New York's governor on the proposal, but he also needs buy-in from New Jersey's chief executive.

That cross-jurisdictional problem is not unique to the Big Apple's tri-state overlap - the Great Lakes share waters and borders with another country and Washington, D.C., abuts two states.

Even if states and cities complete effective command structures - a DHS condition that it won't dispense federal preparedness funds unless they do should prod them on - a huge question still looms. Should the federal government (i.e., the military) ever take the wheel in a severe crisis?

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) rejected such an offer. So did Florida, which rebuffed an attempt by the US military to set up a joint command with the state's national guard in advance of hurricane Wilma. [Editor's note: The original version misnamed the governor of Louisiana.]

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These two states rightly approach the federalization issue with extreme caution. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) warns: "If you federalize, all the innovation, creativity, and knowledge at the local level would subside."

While this debate continues, it should not stop cities and states from establishing and testing a command structure that works locally and can also cooperate with Uncle Sam.