Local Commentary

A Penny for Your Thoughts: News of Greater Falls Church


Fairfax County’s renowned Urban Search and Rescue Team, also known as Virginia Task Force One, or VATF-1, deployed to Japan in response to the earthquake and tsunami that devastated that nation last week. The 74-member team includes technical search and rescue specialists, hazardous materials specialists, structural engineers, physicians, search and rescue canines and their handlers, and other support personnel, as well as about 30 tons of equipment to help in the search and rescue operations.

The team’s travel itinerary began at Dulles, and continued to Los Angeles and Anchorage before arriving at the Misawa U.S. Airbase in northern Japan. Initially, the team’s base of operations is in the town of Ofunato in Iwate Prefecture, but their assignment could change as conditions dictate. Damage in the area is described as severe, with large amounts of rubble. The search and rescue operation is international, as VATF-1 is working with “Heavy Teams” from the United Kingdom and Australia.

VATF-1 members respond to disasters around the world and here at home. Last year, the team was deployed to Haiti following the earthquake there, and other missions have included Turkey, China, Oklahoma City, and the Pentagon on 9-11. The Japan mission provides an extra set of challenges. The double whammy of seismic disruption and accompanying tsunami of epic proportions is overlaid with unknown dangers from nuclear meltdowns in damaged reactors along Japan’s coastline. So far, VATF-1 reports no increase in radiation levels at their search location.

VATF-1’s mission is supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). All costs are covered by the federal government, including the filling of positions at home during deployment to ensure that fire and rescue staffing levels and services remain seamless in Fairfax County.

The retirements of State Senators Mary Margaret Whipple (D-31) and Patsy Ticer (D-30) may leave a large gap for local jurisdictions in Northern Virginia. Both women have stellar records in the Virginia General Assembly, reflecting years of hard work and attention to the issues. Both also served as a local elected official: Mary Margaret spent 10 years on the Arlington County Board, and Patsy was Mayor of the City of Alexandria for several years before she defeated Republican incumbent Senator Bob Calhoun in 1995. Time in local office provides grounding for the “people” issues that are the focus of local government. Local issues are rarely partisan. Advocacy for good schools, safe streets, clean air, water quality, and transportation is a common element that draws us together, and both Mary Margaret and Patsy brought a sensible approach to their work in Richmond.

In the State Senate, they also created leadership roles for themselves in a legislative body that, for centuries, has been dominated by men. Only eight of the 40 current Senators, or merely 20 percent, are female; five are from Northern Virginia (4 Democrats, 1 Republican). Mary Margaret and Patsy are unique, both in their gender and local government experience, and that leaves a large gap to fill in the August 23 primary election that most likely will determine the candidates for the General Election in both districts. Thanks to both outstanding elected officials for their long hours, dedication, and level-headedness. Northern Virginia is privileged to have Mary Margaret Whipple and Patsy Ticer as friends and trail blazers.


Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at mason@fairfaxcounty.gov


  • Penny Gross

    Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at mason@fairfaxcounty.gov