- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 13, 2002

Whether a natural disaster or terrorist attack, lives will be saved or lost during the ensuing chaos based upon the efficiency of the first response. Therefore, it's worth asking whether having multiple and perhaps conflicting emergency response plans, as appears to be shaping up, ought to be reconsidered. Though certainly well-intentioned, the Regional Emergency Coordination Plan approved by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) which represents Maryland, Virginia and the District may end up creating confusion and disarray. That's because the federal response may be different, causing critical time to be wasted deciding who should be in charge.

The plan agreed to by the local officials has been in the works for the past seven months. The goal was to link communications and emergency systems, pool resources and, in general, provide for a coordinated response to any disaster or major problem. School and road closings, evacuation routes, and so forth would be handled jointly rather than separately, as was the case on September 11 when conflicting and confusing reports added to the general pandemonium. It wasn't until seven hours after the attacks that regional officials managed to deliver a coordinated message to the panicked public.

However, the various agencies of the federal government such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as well as the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies are drawing up their own emergency response plans. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge may also have a different agenda. And surely the other states and localities are busily drawing up plans of their own, too.

It's entirely likely that multiple tiers of bureaucracy will be created by all of this planning, and that's the very last thing we need should another attack or major natural disaster occur. Yet, COG officials are practically insisting very unrealistically that the federal government sign on to their approach. D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, chairman of COG's panel, said that "unless we have a buy-in by the federal government, it will not run as smoothly as it could and should." Fairfax County Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly said the COG plan is "dead on arrival if the feds don't cooperate." That's certainly true.

Indeed, while local response is tantamount to the first response, can local officials insist that the federal government "buy into" their plan to say nothing of the 48 other states that may prefer to handle things differently? Surely this is one area where it makes sense for state and local governments to defer to whatever plan Mr. Ridge and the Office of Homeland Security may develop.

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