- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 24, 2002

The greater Washington area is better prepared to handle a major emergency than it was on September 11, thanks in large part to a major collaborative effort among federal, state, and local agencies, businesses, and nonprofit groups, the first such undertaking anywhere in the country since September.

In a recent editorial, however, The Washington Times' editors expressed concerns that new plans intended to ease confusion during a response to an emergency would just create more of it. We would like to address those concerns.

On the morning of September 11, first responders in Arlington performed admirably by reaching the Pentagon quickly and performing rescue operations efficiently, despite the overwhelming magnitude of the destruction.

Arlington drew help from surrounding jurisdictions through longstanding "mutual aid agreements" originally facilitated by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG). Longstanding mutual aid agreements were updated after the crash of an Air Florida jet into the 14th Street Bridge in 1982, and they were a key part of the smooth Pentagon response.

Away from the Pentagon, however, the response to the emergency progressed less smoothly. Workers were released just as roads were closed, clogging routes out of the city. A coordinated stream of credible information never materialized, so that the public heard news reports about new dangers that simply didn't exist.

Moreover, key officials from local governments didn't join together in a conference call until seven hours after the attack. Taken together, these and other problems made for a confusing, and sometimes frightening, day for those who work and live in and around Washington.

Since September 11, 17 area local jurisdictions, Virginia, Maryland, and the federal government, as well as private-sector leaders, have been working with the Council of Governments to ensure that communication and coordination among all of the different agencies involved in an emergency response will prove seamless if another disaster happens.

The result of these past months of hard work is the new Regional Emergency Coordination Plan. It accounts for every aspect of emergency response; not just public safety, health, and law enforcement, but also issues relating to transportation, energy and public works, like water shortages and debris removal.

It's a comprehensive plan, one that is intended to streamline the efforts of regional agencies, not make their work more complicated. Utilizing a state-of-the-art-24-hour communications capability, the plan will now allow leaders to reach each other within 30 minutes of an emergency not the seven hours it took on September 11.

The plan enjoys broad support, including the endorsement of the president's Office of Homeland Security, which has pledged that it will work closely with the Council of Governments as the plan continues to be developed and refined.

Such support not only from the Office of Homeland Security, but also from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other organizations at all levels of government and in the private sector is largely the result of the Council of Governments' strong efforts to align the new Regional Emergency Coordination Plan with existing plans and efforts now under way.

For example, the regional plan will utilize the same color-coded warning system devised by the Office of Homeland Security once that system is finalized. The regional plan is consistent with all of the work FEMA has done to make the Washington area safer. And the regional plan will mesh with ongoing efforts by private-sector organizations to be better prepared for and better able to recover from a disaster.

These partnerships, and others like them, will ensure that every entity in the region will be speaking the same language, a critical component of a successful emergency response.

Most importantly, this plan works. We know it does because it has been tested repeatedly, and continues to be tested. Throughout the next several months, the Council of Governments will organize training exercises, both on the phone and in the field, to gain a real-world view of how the Regional Emergency Coordination Plan will work.

Based on lessons learned from those exercises, the plan will be constantly revised and updated, so that the region will remain the most prepared in the United States.

Our region is unique. In no other part of the country do so many different agencies share the responsibility for handling a big emergency. The plan approved by the Council of Governments and under review by stakeholders has a simple goal: to ensure that all of those agencies are well-equipped to coordinate and communicate their activities.

And as a result of this unprecedented collaboration, the brave and talented professionals that we all rely on will be certain that they can also rely on each other.


Michael C. Rogers is executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

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