Arlington Strives to Improve Emergency Preparedness

Arlington Strives to Improve Emergency Preparedness

New radio station will be part of county’s arsenal to alert the public and provide information during emergencies.

As the outer bands of Ernesto began to lash the county Friday morning with driving rain and fierce winds, Bob Griffin, head of Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management, was preparing for the worst.

Griffin and his deputies spent all morning tracking the storm on a series of computers and eight large, flat-screen televisions in the "watch desk" section of their offices in Courthouse.

As the hours passed, it appeared that Arlington would be spared the full brunt of the storm. But just in case, Griffin worked the phones, speaking with the heads of more than half-a-dozen county agencies to make sure they had personnel

on stand-by.

In between, he prepared for a conference call with emergency officials from across the region to gauge how other jurisdictions were bracing for potential flooding.

If the county’s streams over-flowed, as they did during torrential storms in late June, and roads and basements became deluged with water, he was prepared to summon up to 25 police, fire, parks and government staff to his state-of-the-art emergency operations center to help coordinate the county’s response.

"Five years ago, all of this didn’t exist," Griffin said, sitting in the operations center, a compact room with more than a dozen computers and television screens and numerous phones. "We had no watch desk, no public alert system and no office of emergency management."

In the five years since American Airlines Flight 77 was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon, as part of the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history, emergency preparedness has become one of the county’s top priorities.

Arlington has overhauled its response strategy, establishing an independent Office of Emergency Management and creating new emergency plans. It has upgraded its public communication system, and will launch a new radio station later this month to provide Arlington residents with specific information in the event of a natural disaster or another terrorist attack.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, county officials have placed even greater emphasis on training residents for how best to prepare for an emergency situation.

"The county learned a lot of lessons from Sept. 11," Griffin said. "We’ve taken

them to heart and done a lot the past five years."

ON THE MORNING of Sept. 10, 2001, Mark Penn took over as Arlington’s deputy

coordinator of emergency services. Penn was the county’s only emergency

management official, and the job comprised half of his responsibilities; the

other half of his time was devoted to hazardous materials issues.

For a jurisdiction of Arlington’s size, having a one-person emergency staff was

the norm, Penn said.

The county had run test drills at the Pentagon before, and the fire department

had been training to respond to a terrorist attack since the Oklahoma City

bombings five years prior. But the county government, like its peers across the

nation, was unprepared for a terrorist attack along the lines of Sept. 11.

"Based on the current risks, we had an appropriate number [of emergency staff]

for pre- 9/11," said Penn, who is now Alexandria’s emergency coordinator.

"Should it have been more in retrospect? Well, yeah."

Arlington fire fighters have received numerous accolades for their tireless

heroism that day, and their quick response is thought to be directly responsible

for saving countless lives in the Pentagon.

"The successful response to the terrorist attack on the Pentagon can be

attributed to the efforts of ordinary men and women performing in extraordinary

fashion," concluded an after-action report on the county’s performance on Sept.


The report lauded the degree to which departments from various jurisdictions

banded together that fateful day. One of the most enduring images of Sept. 11,

is the manner in which emergency responders from all over the region descended

upon the Pentagon to help in the recovery and rescue efforts, fire officials


But in the weeks and months after the attack, Arlington fire and emergency

officials came to the conclusion that the county needed to overhaul the way it

managed crises.

In July 2003, the county built an emergency operations center, and the following

year the emergency management office, with staff from the police, fire and

sheriff departments, came online.

"We become the brain hub for the county government when a disaster strikes,"

Griffin said.

The county is currently upgrading its 911 call center, and dispatchers will soon

move into a new $31 million facility.

To give the emergency management team a set of ears and eyes on the ground, the

county has purchased three mobile command units. These vehicles possess

surveillance equipment and satellite capabilities, as well as numerous

computers, televisions and phones.

"To have a vehicle that brings this technology right to the site in an emergency

is impressive," said Rob Ritch, a senior network engineer for the county, as he

sat in one of the command vehicles last week. "It can act as a communication

center during a major incident."

WHILE THE EMERGENCY RESPONSE to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack was exemplary,

county and fire officials understood that they were unable to effectively

provide information to Arlington residents.

"We didn’t do such a good job of letting people know what was going on, and

didn’t realize what kind of info we should have been putting out," Schwartz


When Hurricane Isabelle knocked out power to much of the county in 2003, it was

a reminder that Arlington officials could not count on using television or the

Internet to pass on vital information to the public.

In response, the county created the Arlington Alert System, which when activated

sends messages via email, cell phone, pager and PDA in English and Spanish to

17,000 subscribers.

To reach homes across Arlington, the county upgraded its reverse 911 system. The

new system now can call more than 90,000 homes in less than a hour.

Later this month Arlington will launch its much-awaited radio station, on the

1700 AM frequency. During non-emergencies the station will broadcast weather and

traffic reports, and will be a key tool to direct residents in case of a natural

disaster or terrorist attack, officials said.

The most controversial part of the new public communication strategy is the

county’s desire to implement a siren system. A countywide network of electronic

sirens and speakers is the best way to alert the public of a hazardous chemical

spill or incoming tornado, said Jim Pebley, who chaired the county’s citizen-led

public emergency communications task group.

"People outdoors are the most vulnerable, yet have the least reliable

communications," Pebley said.

The county sought state money to build the siren network, but that effort was

vetoed by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Pebley said. The

reason was due to a "very strong technological prejudice" against the sirens

from people who fear they will resemble Cold War-era alert systems, he added.

The county eventually secured $400,000 in federal funding to set up a

three-siren pilot program early next year. One will be placed in a dense urban

center, one around mid-rise buildings near a Metro station and the third will be

situated in a park in a residential neighborhood, Griffin said.

If the sound travels well, and the system seems effective, county officials will

pursue more federal funds to build a full siren network.

ARLINGTON OFFICIALS HAVE prepared detailed plans for a response to a range of

emergencies, including biological terrorist attacks, hazardous chemical spills

and natural disasters.

The county does not possess specific evacuation plans because each disaster or

terrorist scenario is different and government officials want to retain a high

degree of flexibility to adapt to any situation, Capt. Thomas Panther, formerly

an OEM deputy coordinator, said during an emergency preparedness meeting last


Emergency officials have established contingency plans in case of a nuclear or

large-scale chemical attack nearby. OEM and the federal government, with

assistance from the new mobile command vehicles, would monitor plumes of

dangerous substances to gauge where they were headed. They would then use the

various alert systems to tell residents whether they need to evacuate.

The county has designated six facilities — four schools and two community

centers — as shelters with overnight capacity. In the aftermath of Hurricane

Isabelle, Thomas Jefferson Middle School was used as a temporary safe haven.

Nine county schools can serve as short-term shelters and resource centers, and

all schools are equipped with generators and a small stockpile of food.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, county officials have emphasized that

emergency preparedness is also the responsibility of residents. In a large-scale

disaster, county resources would be stretched thin, and residents could be

called upon to help aid rescue efforts.

"The challenge is to get citizens to understand that government is not the

answer," Schwartz said. "In a catastrophic incident it’s going to be citizens

helping citizens."

In response, the county has set up Community Emergency Response Teams to train

residents in disaster preparedness and rescue skills.

It is imperative that residents have their own set of emergency supplies,

officials said, including water, food, a first aid kit, flashlights, batteries

and medicine. People should have enough goods in their house to survive three to

five days.

Griffin fears that the constant calls to prepare may be falling on deaf ears in

the community.

"We have to push the message without sounding like Chicken Little," he said.

"But people are busy and don’t want to be reminded all the time."

Five years after Sept. 11, there has yet to be a successful terrorist attack on

American soil. Despite last month’s foiled plot to blow up airplanes traveling

from London to America, officials said they sense a lack of urgency among


"The danger here is that complacency can hurt us almost as bad as the

terrorists," Pebley said. "We are forgetting the lessons learned."