WASHINGTON – The greater-Washington, D.C., area must continue to improve its communication capability in a disaster, a regional council concluded Wednesday.
With the imminent anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks and the recent hurricane threats, the National Capital Region Emergency Preparedness Council said it was timely to discuss how the region might fare if a major emergency were to occur in the near future.
“One of the major weaknesses during 9-11 was the complete lack of communication from federal and regional agencies,” said Gerry Connolly, chairman of the council. “There was no centralized place to stop the rumors about Camp David being attacked.”
The numerous agencies called to assist during the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, had difficulty communicating with each other and couldn’t agree on a common public notification and safety strategy.
Since then, police agencies in the region are using 800-MHz radios to avoid the same problems.
Bringing all parties together, making sure to have common agreements and building interagency message redundancy is key to preventing confusion and saving lives during a disaster, Connolly said.
Cooperation among health care systems during a catastrophe was another council concern.
“Health care is our first line of defense during an emergency. Communication in the region is imperfect within the health care system,” Connolly said at a presentation at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. “We can’t settle for that. We’ve got to sit down with health care communication and bang some heads.”
The handling of pets during an emergency has also been a problem in times of crisis, as was seen during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster.
The preparedness council suggested creating more shelters for animals with their owners, who generally do not like to be separated from their pets.
COG board member and Greenbelt Mayor Judith Davis also suggested creating a plan similar to one enacted in Louisiana during this year’s Hurricane Gustav. That plan entailed providing pet carriers and bar-coding pets.
“You can ignore pets if you want but people are going to sneak back in if they have to,” Connolly said. “People will not leave their pets so instead of trying to fight human nature, you’ve got to work with human nature.”
The region would be prepared should another serial sniper begin, said Fairfax County Police Chief David M. Rohrer. In 2002, snipers shooting from a car killed 10 people in the D.C. area. It took nearly a month to find them.
“This region is really forged into partnership right now,” Rohrer said. “We have an excellent system for detectives that I wish I had when I was a detective.”
The preparedness council also emphasized the importance of regularly reminding the public of emergency plans.
“You (the public) have the responsibility in your own neighborhood and your own families,” Connolly said. “There’s no way a government can respond to everything so every business also needs its own emergency preparedness plans.”