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Ready to roll: Jersey City has new plan for emergencies

With Hurricane Sandy still fresh in their minds, it was time for Hudson County business leaders to compare notes on how they weathered the storm.

So when they met last February, a group comprised mostly of Jersey City's financial service firms shared what worked well and where they could improve. They also recalled trying to run their offices amid street closures, curfews and other obstacles — and they realized they could use a little help from City Hall in the next emergency.

"One of the very salient goals that came out of that was building more robust relationships with the public sector," said Maria Nieves, president and CEO of the Hudson County Chamber of Commerce.

She later added: "Unfortunately it's a crisis that makes everyone really understand the level of detail to which you need to go."

Public officials and business leaders across the state have been working more closely since Sandy, but it's especially critical in a place with one of the country's largest clusters of banking and financial service firms. So stakeholders in Jersey City have moved to close that gap by giving the chamber a seat at the table — figuratively and literally.

At the city's Emergency Operations Center — a high-tech communications hub on Summit Avenue — the chamber was recently given a designated station alongside the public safety agencies, utilities and other entities that would assemble at the building during a crisis.

"With somebody at the table, they're receiving the same information we're getting," said Greg Kierce, the city's director of emergency management, who calls himself "a firm believer in (getting) the information out there."

"Unfortunately, you may have to give somebody bad news," he said. "But as long as you give them the news, people adapt."

Nieves said the seat allows a representative to get the information much more quickly and act as a conduit to other companies; it also gives businesses a channel to pose questions to authorities.

Both sides agree it was a challenge to get information out during Sandy. Bad luck was partly to blame: The city had planned to renovate the operations center starting Nov. 1, Kierce said, meaning its video wall and other equipment were disabled as the storm struck.

But Sandy also exposed flaws in the communication between the public and private sectors, Nieves said. The curfew imposed after the storm caused uncertainty among some businesses, who "weren't sure how that would impact their ability to get people in and out of their office buildings, especially late at night."

So when business leaders met in February, it became clear "there needed to be better communication so that these companies, when they're trying to manage through a crisis, can get up to date and timely information," she said.

That led the chamber to engage emergency management officials in fixing that, and the inauguration of Mayor Steven Fulop in July helped bring those plans to the finish line, she said. By the one-year anniversary of Sandy, the organization had its seat at the command center.

The group has since identified about a half-dozen members who could man the post during an incident. The focus now is on training.

"Next year, now that we've got some basic processes in place, will be about practicing those tabletop exercises, making sure everybody has the protocols documented and building on what we've done this year," Nieves said. "But I do think this work will be ongoing so that at some point, these folks really do know each other and it's as smooth as what happens now, for example, in New York City."

It's a plan that won't be undervalued in the city known as Wall Street West. Fulop said the financial service firms on the waterfront can't afford to be shut down because of a lack of communication.

One of his go-to examples is Direct Edge, which reportedly will become the nation's second-largest stock exchange after the completion of a merger this year.

"An impact on access there, obviously it has an impact on U.S. stock markets, so communication could be better," Fulop said. "So we're making sure that the outreach is better."

Efforts to bolster public-private cooperation aren't limited to a seat in the command center. The city's Community Emergency Response Team, which is comprised of volunteers trained in lifesaving skills, includes members of its business community alongside residents, elected officials and others who can assist in a crisis.

Meantime, an Internet-based system known as Mutualink allows officials to communicate and share real-time video with organizations across the city while giving them access to surveillance cameras at key business hubs, Kierce said. Goldman Sachs, Newport Centre Mall and Saint Peter's University are among the non-public-sector entities that partner in the program.

Nieves, the former director of business continuity for Fidelity Investments' New York-New Jersey offices, said experiences across the Hudson River have influenced how many financial firms build their contingency plans. That was magnified after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when they spent more time considering where to place their backup operations, so having a strong network in Jersey City is even more critical.

Such a network also helps on the regulatory side, she said, noting the federal government often requires financial service firms to have risk-management protocols in place.

"Being able to say that, in Jersey City, there is a robust level of communication in place … helps tremendously," she said.

E-mail to: joshb@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @JoshBurdNJ

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