WASHINGTON – Washington-area governments gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a plan that would let regional decision-makers huddle within an hour of an emergency — compared to the seven hours it took on Sept. 11.
The plan, approved after six months of study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, becomes the first regional emergency response plan approved in the nation since Sept. 11, according to the National Association of Regional Councils.
“There’s been a herculean effort like I’ve never seen in my 40 years of public service,” said Prince George’s County Council member M.H. “Jim” Estepp, vice chairman of the COG homeland security committee, of the work behind the plan.
COG got $5 million from Congress in February to develop the Regional Emergency Coordination Plan. The multifaceted plan will establish clear — and open — lines of communication between officials, coordinate traffic flow, allow for debris removal and stockpile emergency supplies, among other recommendations.
The cornerstone of the plan is a Regional Incident Communications and Coordination System that is designed to let officials reach each other within about 30 minutes of any kind of event, from another terrorist attack to a deadly storm.
The system would identify officials in each of the 17 jurisdictions included in COG who would be notified immediately after an incident was reported. Conference calls could be set up within an hour, and jurisdictions could talk via secure web sites and pagers.
The regional system is also intended to get timely and accurate information out to the public, another major problem on Sept. 11.
“We’re hoping to have many voices, but a single message,” said Rockville City Council member Robert Dorsey, another member of the homeland security committee.
Once activated, the plan would designate two lead public information officers, one at the site of the incident and another at the nearest emergency operations center. The center is now located at the D.C. Emergency Management Agency, but COG hopes to eventually establish such centers in Maryland and Virginia.
Less than $20,000 has been spent on equipment so far, but Dorsey said that COG might buy direct-connect phones to avoid the cell-phone network overload on Sept. 11, or spend some money to reserve bandwidth for an emergency. But council members said the coordination system has been tested and could handle an incident today.
That is true, too, for the transportation aspect of the plan, said a Montgomery County traffic official.
Roads and transit systems were quickly overloaded on Sept. 11, when the federal government released employees without first notifying local governments, schools were let out early and some roads were closed around federal facilities.
Bruce Mangum, acting chief of Montgomery County’s Transportation Systems Management Section, said that if a disaster occurred today, he and his “brother traffic engineers” in the District could coordinate traffic signals to evacuate the city quickly.
Using Nextel direct-connect numbers and e-mail addresses, he said, Montgomery County signal operators can now match D.C. light cycles at the moment they change.
Beverly Nykwest, the policy director for the National Association of Regional Councils, said the COG plan is “very thorough, very good.”
The full COG council gave unanimous approval to the plan Wednesday, beginning a public comment period on it. Homeland security committee members said they expect final approval in September.
“I’m very comfortable with the organization of this plan,” Dorsey said. “The right things have been thought of.”