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July 27, 2014

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Homeland Security taps Vegas firm for response planning

Eight years ago this week, the 9/11 terrorist attacks stunned the nation and exposed gaps in America’s defenses and emergency response procedures.

With those lessons in mind, a Las Vegas consulting firm has been tapped by the Department of Homeland Security to better prepare first responders for disasters of any kind by compiling detailed emergency response plans for more than 3,000 sites statewide that have been deemed critical to Nevada’s economy and infrastructure.

Sheila Conway, managing partner of consulting firm Urban Environmental Research, said one of the painful lessons of 9/11 was that emergency responders were sorely lacking in interagency communication capability, something Conway says UER is hoping to change.

The vulnerability assessments that UER is doing evaluate floor plans, utility lines, shutoff valves, evacuation routes, hazardous material storage location and other factors, then combine all the information into a Web-based format that is instantly available to police, firefighters, paramedics or any other emergency responders, Conway said.

The goal, Conway said, is to facilitate communication by providing all responders with the same critical information up front.

“They all have the same information,” Conway said. “That means they can respond faster and they can make more informed decisions.”

Though fire departments frequently compile similar plans, Conway said, those plans are rarely seen by other agencies that could use them and are not easily accessible in an emergency.

“That information was kept on paper and it was something that was just kept within each fire station,” Conway said. “It was not shared across the city; it was not shared between departments.”

The Department of Homeland Security is paying UER $1.2 million to compile the 3,000-plus site assessments – an amount Conway said puts the company on a shoestring budget. But by using simple computer programs available in a basic office program suite, Conway said UER can compile the data at a low cost, then arrange it in a simple Web format that can be accessed in the field by laptop or PDA.

UER is working with Metro Police, the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies throughout the state to prepare the assessments.

Former Henderson Fire Chief Jim Cavalieri, who retired in 2008, joined UER earlier this year because he said he saw the value of what the company was trying to accomplish.

“I saw that it could have an effect on emergency planning throughout the state,” he said. “It’s a worthwhile endeavor.”

Cavalieri works on statewide initiatives for UER, developing a framework for emergency response procedures that he hopes will serve as the basis for departments around the state.

UER has completed a vulnerability assessment for more than 500 locations so far, with several hundred more under way, Conway said.

Each assessment takes about five days of on-site evaluations and five days of office work, she said. Sites were prioritized based on their importance to the local economy and infrastructure, meaning that Strip casinos, power stations, major transportation routes and water treatment plants came first.

The company is also looking at shopping malls, Conway said, because of their financial impact and because shopping malls have been threatened elsewhere in the past – be it by fire, natural disaster or terrorist attack – all factors considered in UER’s vulnerability assessments.

Conway said the end goal is to reduce the toll of disasters.

“In the end, this is going to save lives and reduce damage to facilities,” she said.

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