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State response to Baltimore unrest hampered by confusion, report finds

The unrest "presented unique public safety challenges" and "many opportunities for improvement," report says.

The state's handling of the civil unrest in Baltimore last spring was hampered by the inexperience of some emergency management staff and resulted in slow payment to vendors and reliance on inaccurate information during the riots, according to a new state report.

In some instances, the confusion jeopardized relationships with vendors or left them waiting months for payment for services provided, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency report found. And at times during the unrest, officials helping to lead the state's response from inside the State Emergency Operations Center were receiving so little information from official channels that they were relying instead on misleading television coverage from national media that skewed the situation on the ground.

Like previous reviews of city and police responses to the unrest, MEMA's "after-action report" found top-level communication failures, departures from national emergency response guidelines and resulting confusion surrounding the deployment of resources. The rapidly evolving situation included widespread protests and a night of rioting, looting and arson in late April.

The events "presented unique public safety challenges" and "many opportunities for improvement," according to the report, which was released Monday to The Baltimore Sun.

Clay Stamp, MEMA's executive director at the time of the unrest and now a senior adviser to Gov. Larry Hogan, said the state's response wasn't perfect, but that the failures highlighted in the report were "sub-notes to a great story — one of success."

"The state of Maryland performed in a strategic manner by leaning forward and leveraging resources within Maryland and the five states around Maryland in 36 hours," he said.

MEMA Executive Director Russell Strickland said in a statement that since the spring, his agency has "addressed gaps by improving our resource management processes and implementing new and enhanced training" so that the state is "prepared to respond quickly and efficiently the next time" it needs to support a local jurisdiction experiencing unrest.

The MEMA report is the first to focus squarely on the role of the state — it also notes several strengths of the state's response — rather than the city or its police force.

In December, a report produced for the city by the Johns Hopkins University's Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response found a similar lack of a strategy in the city's operations center, including overlapping chains of command and poor communication internally and with the public. The Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington law enforcement think tank, produced a report on behalf of the city that said failings at the city's operations center hindered the deployment of police officers in an efficient and effective manner.

The new report suggests confusion at the state level also affected the deployment of resources.

As law enforcement agencies from other jurisdictions began sending aid and the city and state activated emergency centers, the state began providing critical support. However, requests for state resources weren't being processed correctly, the new report found, causing "duplication of effort as multiple agencies unknowingly worked to fill the same request."

City agencies that requested resources weren't familiar with protocols for doing so, the report found. And staff inside the state's operations center were not receiving accurate information about what was actually going on in Baltimore— at times relying on "sensationalized" coverage from out-of-town media.

"Although Baltimore City is 81 square miles and the incident was contained to a few specific neighborhoods, at times it appeared the incident was widespread," the report found. "Media coverage of the incident was shown in the SEOC with few briefings to the SEOC staff, and this may have unfairly influenced incident priorities and objectives."

By the time state operations center staff were provided information to put into reports for distribution, the information was "ineffective and outdated," the report found.

Informal communications between state and city officials weren't being recorded in the live Web-based application WebEOC that was established to track developments, leading to "confusion with the recording and tracking of resources and general situational awareness," the report found.

There was also a general "lack of understanding" about the "strategic, operational, and tactical functions" of the state operations center, in terms of who was in charge of making decisions in those respective areas.

"Although many noted that this was primarily an issue stemming directly from the field, the cascading impacts were felt by all responding agencies and the SEOC," the report found.

As time went on, MEMA and state agencies struggled to find qualified replacements for key members of their response teams who were becoming fatigued after days of nonstop work.

In all, the report outlined five recommendations for change, including ramping up training for emergency officials on national response protocols, revisiting communication strategies during emergency events, and developing training for MEMA and other state agency employees on the state's procurement process.

It also outlined four major strengths, including the state's use of social media to spread information, its work to ensure responders from various jurisdictions could communicate via radios, and its use of a virtual "Business Operations Center" to keep business leaders in Baltimore apprised of what was going on.

"This incident required a multi-jurisdictional, multi-agency response which included resource support from within Maryland as well as surrounding states. Although opportunities for improvement were identified, there were successes, including the collaboration of State Agencies/Departments and local jurisdictions in support of Baltimore City," the report said. "The response enhanced existing relationships across the State and provided the opportunity to develop new partnerships for use in the future."

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

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