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Illinois’ first female general to command Chicago’s 911 center

Alicia Tate-Nadeau (center) was appointed Wednesday by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to lead the Office of Emergency Management and Communications. She succeeds Gary Schenkel, who is retiring. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

The Illinois National Guard’s first female general will ride herd over the Office of Emergency Management and Communications at a time when extreme weather is “the new normal” and terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris have heightened concern about a similar attack in Chicago.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel made that official Wednesday, appointing Alicia Tate-Nadeau to replace retiring Marine Gary Schenkel, who has presided over the $94.3 million-a-year agency that operates the city’s 911 emergency center since the mayor took office in 2011.

“He’s not allowed to go anywhere until both the NFL Draft and James Beard [Awards] are out of town,” Emanuel said of Schenkel.

“There are many times I thought Gary was not sleeping or, if he was sleeping, he was sleeping here. He has done an incredible job.”

In Schenkel and now fired-Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, Emanuel had a team seasoned to respond to terrorist attacks and severe weather emergencies and handle logistical planning for the 2012 NATO Summit and associated protests, the NFL Draft and other large-scale events.

On Sept. 11, 2001, McCarthy was operations chief for the New York City Police Department. He lost 13 friends on that day, two of them among his closest buddies. He spent six months digging at Ground Zero but didn’t find a single person alive.

Schenkel was a former training director for the Marines who once served as a top official in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He ran the Chicago Police academy under former Police Supt. Terry Hillard.

Tate-Nadeau and newly appointed Interim Police Supt. Eddie Johnson appear to forge a somewhat less seasoned team when it comes to the worldwide fight against terrorism.

But Emanuel argued otherwise during a news conference Wednesday at the 911 emergency center.

The mayor read from a resume that includes stints as assistant adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard, deputy commanding general of the Army National Guard’s Maneuver Support Center of Excellence, service in the Army Reserve Command’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Domestic Preparedness Division and as lead on the FEMA regional team responding to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Tate-Nadeau is also an Iraq War veteran and Bronze Star winner who “advised and assessed military operations while working with the Iraqi population to promote civic engagement with the local and national government,” the news release states.

Prior to joining the Illinois National Guard, Tate-Nadeau served in Israel where she “planned, coordinated and conducted emergency management exercises with international partners” and helped oversee the “first-ever exercise between the U.S., Israel and Germany regarding search and rescue operations in urban areas,” the news release states.

“She knows what it takes to coordinate policies, to coordinate programs and to coordinate planning to keep the residents of Chicago safe and secure. She has the experience and the expertise to respond to the threats we face today and also to look over the horizon and prepare for the threats that may come tomorrow — whether from terrorism and also from the . . . effects of climate change,” Emanuel said.

“She has the ability to manage everything from our response to blizzards and floods, the day to day work of 911 and 311 call centers, and preparing for major events like the NFL Draft . . . I have complete confidence in Alicia.”

Tate-Nadeau noted that emergency management is “a team sport” and that team includes Johnson, Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago and Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams.

She also outlined her “whole community philosophy” of emergency management that calls for marshaling support from community leaders, local, state and federal officials and the business community.

“When an event occurs, we don’t have time to start our coordination. We have to have those built relationships,” she said.

Under Schenkel, Chicago revised its severe weather plan, installed cuts in median planters along Lake Shore Drive and ordered a host of other changes to prevent a repeat of the Groundhog Day blizzard fiasco that shut down the drive and left 525 vehicles stranded there for 14 hours.

Schenkel also presided over a $31 million upgrade of the operations floor at the 911 center and implemented a new dispatch policy aimed at diverting non-emergency calls away from 911.

He struggled to get a handle on runaway overtime that could lead to employee burn-out in the high-stress, dispatch job. More recently, Schenkel suspended two dispatchers without pay for hanging up on Quintonio LeGrier and failing to dispatch police in response to the young man’s pleas for help in late December.

When Chicago Police finally did respond, they shot and killed the bat-wielding LeGrier and accidentally killed his neighbor, Bettie Jones.

Asked about the Quintonio LeGrier controversy, Tate-Nadeau said, “Whenever people call the 911 center, they’re probably having the worst day of their lives and it is incumbent upon us . . . to ensure that we have high standards and that we give our 911 call centers the tools that they need to be able to accomplish their job.”

Asked how she planned to control overtime, Emanuel stepped in and answered for the new chief. He pleaded for time for her to get up to speed.

The mayor said Wednesday that it is “still a priority of mine” to replace the police and fire academies with one, ultra-modern facility during his second term.

“Across the city, there’s eight different facilities that are involved in police and fire training. It is my desire to have that consolidated. I think there’s a tremendous amount of efficiencies — not just from a resources and procurement standpoint, but learning together.

“Just take crisis intervention. If you work together and train together, you can be better responders together . . . not just on a day to day but God forbid if we have a situation of a much larger magnitude. I have our team working through continuing to find the resources that would be required to do that. But it is a priority for me.”

It will now fall to Tate-Nadeau to bring that project home. And, of course, to help keep Chicago safe.