Last week, on the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) Board of Directors, received a briefing about emergency preparedness in the Capital Region. Are we well-prepared, Board members wanted to know. The answer from Emergency Preparedness Chairman Paul Quander, who also is Deputy Mayor of the District of Columbia, was yes, we are prepared from an operational standpoint. During the past 12 years, local governments have improved their training and collaboration for natural and human-caused incidents, including radio communications. During 9/11, many first responders at the Pentagon were unable to communicate because their radios used different frequencies, and could not be programmed to “speak” to each other. Arlington County Fire Chief James Schwartz, the incident commander at the Pentagon 12 years ago, said that situation was remedied by having a common frequency to use, and a significant cache of radios that could be distributed to boots on the ground, as well as their incident commanders. Local jurisdictions also beefed up their vehicle fleets to include specialized SWAT vehicles and mobile command posts.
All that expertise was tested this week when a gunman opened fire at Washington’s Navy Yard, killing a dozen people and wounding more. District of Columbia police and fire squads responded quickly, augmented by other local jurisdictions. The Fairfax County police helicopter was deployed to “forward assist” near the scene, and Fairfax County fire engines were sent to staff Arlington County fire stations that were sent to the Navy Yard.
The region operates under a series of mutual aid agreements that were hammered out between jurisdictions years ago, and are updated regularly. Since each jurisdiction has a different legal structure and different authorities, the mutual aid agreement must cover legal authority, compensation, liability, incident command, and a myriad of other bureaucratic issues that, absent the mutual aid agreement, would stymie giving assistance. For the most part, it is local police, fire, and EMS who respond when 911 is dialed. Generally, the federal government doesn’t have first responders; that’s the province of local government, and the local taxpayers who support them.
Non-profit partners are important, too. Linda Mathes, director of the American Red Cross of the National Capital Region, told the COG Board that the Red Cross could serve 1000 people with tents, food, and medical care by that evening, if needed. She said that Red Cross also focuses on building capacity and resilience for people, to humanize preparedness. And that’s probably the take-away for the Navy Yard shooting. Each of us needs to be prepared to shelter in place, at the office if necessary, and have our family emergency plans updated. Surely the Navy Yard employees had no clue what was in store when they reported for work Monday morning. Still, it’s a good reminder to keep your vehicle gas tank filled, your cellphone charged, and have a plan. Weather events usually are forecast at least a few hours in advance; can’t say the same for human-caused events. Be prepared.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]