Who's in charge in case of emergency?; Ability to handle a disaster is in question with Chicago's three top spots vacant


Fran SpielmanChicago Sun Times | | Tuesday, June 26, 2007

CHICAGO Chief Emergency Officer Cortez Trotter abruptly resigned Thursday, leaving Chicago with vacancies or lame-ducks in three jobs crucial to the city's ability to handle a disaster or terrorist attack.

Trotter's resignation from the $167,700-a-year job was delayed until after the mayoral election. Starting Friday, he will start work as vice president and director of Midwest operations for James Lee Witt Associates, the firm started by the man who directed FEMA during the Clinton administration.

It was just 14 months ago that Mayor Daley created the job of chief emergency officer to stave off Trotter's retirement, plan for a bird flu pandemic and avoid the bureaucratic bungling that spelled disaster for New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Trotter was assigned to oversee long-range disaster planning and quarterback disaster scenes.

Now, Police Supt. Phil Cline is retiring. The Office of Emergency Management and Communications is without an executive director. And, after being passed over for mayoral chief of staff, Trotter is headed for the lucrative private-sector job he wanted all along.

Where does that leave Chicago just four months after a federal report that suggested first responders in Chicago and Cook County are ill-prepared to communicate with each other when the Big One hits?

"I leave the city better than I found it. . . . We are . . . one of the best-prepared cities in the country, if not the world," Trotter said.

He added, "It's no small feat to evacuate over 3,000 people during the height of the business day and come back with some true lessons learned and re-write the city's entire Central Business District evacuation plan. We've tried to build on this culture of preparedness. . . . It's been a very productive year."

But what about the stinging federal critique? It cited a "fragmented regional communications infrastructure" with "insufficient channels for joint operations," prompting many first-responders to use their personal cell phones.


Trotter said the hang-up is the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC has finally agreed to give police and fire departments more "bandwidth" or radio frequency channels to improve emergency communications, as demanded by the Sept. 11 Commission. But, not until 2012.

"This is not just a Chicago-Cook County issue. This is a nationwide issue. . . . We can do a lot of things. But, it costs money," Trotter said.

Daley thanked Trotter for his combined 31 years of service and promised to fill the job created just for him.

"He oversaw . . . the evacuation of more than 1,000 people in the CTA subway fire, the South Side power outage that required the temporary relocation of thousands of residents," the mayor said.

"Chicago is safer [because of him]. I want to thank him for his strong leadership, his hard work . . . I'm going to miss him."

And who would call the shots if disaster strikes before the three key jobs are filled?

"I'll volunteer [to help]. That's what happens tomorrow," said Trotter, whose new office will be located across the street from City Hall.

Trotter's resignation is the latest in a string of high-profile personnel moves since the election. Cline retired in the wake of the Police Department's handling of three barroom brawls involving off-duty police officers.

CTA President Frank Kruesi was forced out -- and replaced by the mayor's corruption-fighting chief of staff Ron Huberman -- to improve the CTA's chances of securing a financial bailout in Springfield, where Kruesi was despised.

Huberman was replaced by Planning and Development Commissioner Lori Healey, whose old job is now vacant.

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