NEW CARROLLTON – Prince George’s County Homeland Security Director Vernon Herron said Thursday that without help from an organized civilian response the county does not have the resources to save all of its residents during a catastrophic emergency.
With Prince George’s housing national points of interest including NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Andrews Air Force Base, the county of 850,000 residents is considered a critical area for disaster response, officials said at a daylong summit. Prince George’s was the first local government in Maryland to create its own Department of Homeland Security in 2003.
“I often have sleepless nights pondering if we are prepared to rescue every citizen in Prince George’s County in case of an emergency,” said Herron, in his opening remarks.
He went on to describe how an invitation to the summit for U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff went unanswered until a few weeks ago. That’s when Chertoff’s staff declined and said the invitation had gotten lost.
The lesson: “We as local government, we as communities, we as individuals must be prepared,” Herron said.
Despite Herron’s calls for civilian help, attendees complained the gathering centered too much on how government functions in an emergency and included little practical community information. Many wanted to know specific tips, such as whether they should keep an overnight bag at their offices.
Margaret Gunther of the West Lanham Hills Citizens Association agreed with Herron that communities need to learn how to work efficiently in an emergency. Like others, Gunther said the summit didn’t adequately address what the average person could do.
“They didn’t go into nearly enough depth talking about what I can do, but there was a lot of time spent on how the government would handle things,” said Gunther. “It doesn’t really add up.”
More than 200 county residents, including representatives from civic associations and municipal governments, showed up for the second annual Prince George’s County Homeland Security Summit at the Four Points Sheraton in New Carrollton.
After the opening remarks, more than an hour was devoted to a role-playing scenario of a terrorist attack within the county in which officials explained what their emergency response would be as the mock crisis unfolded.
At one point during the presentation Mount Rainier Mayor Malinda Miles interrupted to ask what the response should be from the community organizations and governments during the pretend disaster. She was told she was skipping ahead, and those issues would be addressed later.
“Honestly, I didn’t really see how that [mock scenario] was supposed to be useful for me,” said Nancy Williams of the Little Washington Civic Association.
Lucy Teagle of the Prince George’s Conference and Visitors Bureau, who was hoping to find out more about workplace preparedness and evacuation routes in the county, echoed the same sentiments. She attended a break-out session on emergency plans for the workplace.
“At least I thought that’s what I went to,” said Teagle. “I’m still waiting to hear what that workplace plan is.”