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Chicago's emergency leader

Terror a new twist for municipal leaders

From Keith Oppenheim

Cameras record activity throughout Chicago that OEMC staffers can sort through from their command center.
Tune into CNN for in-depth reporting on terror threats and defending America in our series, "Security Watch."
Chicago (Illinois)
Emergency Incidents
Acts of terror

CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN) -- Wherever he is in Chicago, Ron Huberman always has one thought on his mind: What if?

Huberman is executive director of the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications. Chicago's office, like many others across the nation, is charged with preventing incidents, preparing for emergency situations and responding when necessary.

The way Huberman sees it, it's his job to second-guess just about everything.

"The reality is when the emergency occurs, it's simply too late to begin to ask the tough questions," Huberman says.

For Huberman, who is constantly on the go and on the phone, the tough questions start at 6 a.m., when he calls his staff. He scans newspapers and Web sites for information on job-related issues -- one of which, nowadays, is the latest on addressing terrorist threats.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, forced federal, state and local authorities to rethink their approach to preventing and responding to crises, especially those involving terrorism.

As a result, many municipal emergency managers are playing an increasingly important role in coordinating police and fire crews, as well as in using technology to stay one step ahead of terrorists.

Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, Huberman was a Chicago police officer for nine years before taking over the city's OEMC. The 33-year-old now leads an emergency staff of 800 that includes 911 dispatchers, technicians and administrators.

"We are on extra alert for terrorist-related activity and things that ... may come in [such] as a suspicious person," he says.

Eyes, as well as ears

At any given moment, staff members in the OEMC's operations center -- the nucleus of Chicago's security system -- monitor hundreds of surveillance cameras spread throughout the city.

Some cameras are hidden, but all are focused on public places. Huberman's pride and joy are the cameras that respond to sound, even detecting gunfire.

"At the operations center ... an alert goes off [when gunfire is detected], and then they are able to instantly view the image and respond. The camera actually instantly turns in the direction of the gunshot," Huberman says.

And the images are recorded. Huberman believes this technology can help deter crime, which he considers the breeding ground of terrorism.

In Huberman's opinion, pumping up the city with surveillance cameras is like a workout routine: good for Chicago's health. To him, the technology is neither an invasion of privacy nor a total answer. But when used well, he believes, it sends a reassuring message: that criminals, and in some cases terrorists, will be stopped.

"What our surveillance network of cameras do is ... make [criminals] paranoid in a sense, because they are fearful that they'll be caught," he says.

Huberman and his team of coordinators would take control if a major disaster struck Chicago.

Huberman hopes soon to bring live surveillance video directly to the computer screens of 911 dispatchers, who in some cases could see what a caller is describing.

"We have ears now," Chicago police dispatcher Melana Raehl says. "Now we are going to have eyes."

Crisis commander

Huberman's command of communications and technology gives him a unique role in Chicago.

Whereas fire and police officials take charge of emergencies like shootings or multibuilding blazes, Huberman and his team of coordinators would take the lead if a major disaster struck. "Unified Command" is a mantra of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley -- a method aimed at avoiding confusion in a crisis.

"I have a very strong team with the ... whole emergency management community, which include police, fire and other parts of government. [We] make sure we are all on the same page, coordinated and focused on the mission," he says.

Huberman says he understands his role and how it applies to the larger national security picture in a post-9/11 environment. Part of that means addressing ordinary Chicagoans' needs and concerns, keeping them abreast of threats but also leaving them confident that everything possible is being done to keep them safe.

The bigger matter, of course, is fulfilling that promise -- by coordinating with public agencies and private businesses, leading first responders and being ready to respond quickly and effectively should an attack occur.

It is important to show, Huberman says, "that as a government we're prepared, and ... it's not just an image -- that there is reality and depth to it -- and that we can truly ensure that we are as able to respond and as able to secure [the city as best] we can."

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