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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Local concerns raised about emergency planning for 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa



 Planning for all the emergencies that could befall next year’s Republican National Convention — everything from a hurricane to a terrorist attack to a fire at the port — is a team effort.

But 10 months out, some members of the team want to know more about the game plan. On their list: getting timetables for planning, training and information sharing.

“We have been asking for several months,” Polk County emergency management director Pete McNally said. “The information we’ve been getting is that that’s in the hands of the Secret Service and some other folks who will be working those plans out.”

It’s not that Tampa and Hillsborough officials are withholding anything, said Rich Shepard, the emergency management director for Hardee County, the southernmost county on a multi-agency committee planning for emergency management. It’s more like they’re not in the loop yet themselves.

This week, those concerns reached Washington D.C.

On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, raised the issue during a closed-door briefing at the House Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications.

Bilirakis, who chairs the subcommittee, invited officials from the Secret Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency to give an update on convention planning.

At the briefing, Bilirakis brought up “concerns he has heard from local officials in Tampa that emergency management officials have not been sufficiently included in the planning process,” according to a summary released by his office.

Told of Bilirakis’s comments, Secret Service spokesman George Ogilvie noted that FEMA and the Florida Division of Emergency Management “are actively involved in the planning process.” Moreover, the executive steering committee that works with subcommittees on a wide range of security topics includes federal, state and local officials.

“It’s a team concept,” he said.

Tampa’s top convention planner said he was unaware of the concerns Bilirakis mentioned but said a lot of the planning hinges on two things.

The first is the congressional appropriation of $55 million that Tampa has requested for convention security.

The second is the establishment of the convention’s security perimeter by the Secret Service.

“Those are the big missing links that we need to land,” said Santiago Corrada, chief of staff for Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. “When they land, we can answer a whole lot of questions.”

Until then, city officials are trying to make sure the planning committees include representatives from as many other jurisdictions as possible.

“Everybody’s engaged here, but we work with the information that we have,” Corrada said. If someone has raised concerns “in frustration, I can understand, because we’re all waiting.”

Once the Secret Service makes its decisions, “we’ll roll it out,” he said.

For now, the Secret Service is not talking about the security perimeter or when it will be decided or announced, Ogilvie said.

Scheduled for Aug. 27 to Aug. 30 at the St. Pete Times Forum, the convention is expected to draw 50,000 visitors to Tampa, including up to 10,000 protesters.

During this week’s congressional briefing, Secret Service and FEMA officials said it was good that Tampa was designated as the convention site earlier than past conventions.

That, they said, has given preparation and coordination a welcome head start.

So far, the executive steering committee has met about 20 times. Federal officials expect to hold three or four “table-top” exercises prior to the convention to anticipate and prepare for various scenarios.

In addition, officials have established a multi-agency communications center that includes representatives from 80 different agencies, including telecommunications companies.

Not every Tampa Bay area emergency management official said they’re concerned about the planning process. Officials in Tampa, Pinellas and Pasco counties said it’s not an issue.

But Pasco County emergency operations coordinator Jim Johnston said it’s only natural for people in his line of work to want to know as much as they can, as soon as they can.

“We’re ready to go to work,” said Shepard, the Hardee County official. For example, officials outside Tampa Bay need to plan to have emergency responders ready to “backfill” in case Tampa and Hillsborough fire rescue crews are tied up with the convention.

“I realize that we’re still a little ways out, but I think we need to be in that process as soon as practical” once federal officials make their decisions, he said. “It’s going to require a great deal of coordination even as far south as here.”

[Last modified: Friday, November 4, 2011 6:23pm]


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