WTO and Y2K: The Story I Was Never Asked To Tell – Part 1: WTO Planning

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

WTO 1999

Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) had only learned of the pending (November/December 1999) World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in March 1999. When “planning” did begin, it was clear that Emergency Management’s inclusion was tolerated rather than welcomed. This would be a Mayor’s Office, SPD and federal (FBI/Secret Service) “show” to manage. Suggestions that demonstrations could become violent, putting safety of citizens and visiting delegates at risk were dismissed.

The failure to plan adequately for WTO had consequences. Professional reputations were tarnished; an entire police department was vilified. The Mayor paid a political price. WTO‘s aftermath prompted severe criticism., and after another mismanaged (again, by SPD leadership) riot in February 2001 in Pioneer Square, the groundwork was laid for his humiliating defeat in the 2001 primary, consigning him to a single term as Mayor.

Despite multiple official investigative reports and countless media inquiries, no one ever asked Emergency Management personnel on (or off) the record for comment. The reasons should become apparent as this narrative proceeds.

Y2K: A Story worth Telling

The concerns surfaced about Y2K’s potential consequences for the public and private sector seemed particularly daunting. Dark “doomsday” predictions of national disruption were troubling enough, but for local government the worry was that basic functions of government would be interrupted. Seattle OEM assumed the lead role in coordination of a city response.

OEM’s role as convener of disaster preparation efforts was established in the City’s Disaster Management Plan. The City’s Information Technology Office (later the Department of Information Technology) was to serve as the “lead agency” to prepare and resolve any issues that might affect city department operations. This was accomplished within the framework of the disaster management structure that had been developed by OEM, promulgated by the Mayor, and approved by the City Council years earlier. This structure had been followed in prior disasters, but although Y2K was unchartered territory, the City’s Plan covered all hazards, previously encountered or not. Moreover, it was a framework for dealing with developing situations, whatever they might be.

In contrast, the Seattle Police Department’s machinations around the upcoming World Trade Organization meetings scheduled at the end of November 1999 abandoned any concept of a “standard of care” for preparing for potentially volatile circumstances. The planning structure that was created was directly counter to the way the city had determined to manage such unique events.

This account is as a historical record and as a reminder to current and future emergency managers that some plans do survive first contact with reality. You just have to use them.

Next Installment: September 5
WTO and Y2K: The Story I Was Never Asked to Tell – Part 2: Pre WTO/Y2K Environment

Now for Something Completely Different: The Story I was Never Asked to Tell
Blog Series

In 2015, The Center of Excellence – Homeland Security Emergency Management celebrated its ten-year anniversary with an Educators & Practitioners Summit at Pierce College Puyallup. One of our keynote speakers was former WA EMD Director Jim Mullen. Jim is a wonderful speaker who has the ability to connect with the audience through his storytelling. It was not long after the Summit where the Center’s Program Manager, Kellie Hale, asked Jim to provide his insights, knowledge, and experience into a monthly blog titled ‘Emergency Management Once Removed’. For the past four years, Jim has maintained a monthly blog for the Center from topics such as climate change, the aftermath of 9/11, the larger concept of emergency management and much more.

Jim has offered to do something a little different and tell about his experience when he was the Director for Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management during the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) 1999 Ministerial Conference in Seattle and the frenetic preparations for the transition from 1999 to 2000 (aka Y2K). The new blog series is titled ‘Now for Something Completely Different: The Story I was Never Asked to Tell’ and will be a seven-part series. Each part will be posted every Thursday via the Center’s Constant Contact mailing list, its Website at www.coehsemcom, and other social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

As the anniversary of WTO and Y2K get closer, Jim’s blog series will be recorded for a podcast. The podcast will provide a little more detail on Jim’s firsthand knowledge as Director for Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management, best practices learned, and takeaways from the experiences. Recording of podcast will be available in November (date TBA). We will keep everyone posted of when Jim’s podcast will be available to access.

August 15: Now for Something Completely Different: The Story I Was Never Asked to Tell
August 22: Background Information on WTO and Y2K
August 29: Part 1: WTO Planning
September 5: Part 2: Pre WTO/Y2K Environment
September 12: Part 3: WTO “Planning” vs “Seminars in Crisis and Consequence Management”
September 19: Part 4: Havoc in the Streets
September 26: Part 5: A Look Back

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Information on this Blog is provided with the understanding that the authors and publishers are not engaged in rendering professional advice or services. As such, it should not be used as a substitute for consultation with an professional adviser. Opinions expressed here represent the viewpoints of individuals authoring the blog and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Center of Excellence.