- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

On Monday, Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge announced the appointment of former FEMA official Michael Byrne as security coordinator for the national capital region. The congressionally created post means state and local governments will have a necessary point of contact in the new Homeland Security Department. Since Mr. Byrne, a former firefighter, has worked at Homeland Security for some months now, the region already is well on its way to an effective and coordinated response should certain circumstances occur. Nonetheless, we have serious concerns.
Local authorities, as well as federal agencies, are being somewhat helpful when it comes to families making common-sense preparations. What concerns us is who will be directing Mom and Dad along what certainly will be chocked roadways?
So, the planning process still begs several questions. Local law enforcement has designated evacuation routes that essentially direct everybody from downtown Washington toward the Beltway. But who will be directing us to safety? Who will ensure that roads aren't gridlocked? Authorities cannot depend on school crossing guards or civilian volunteers, who likely will be tending to the safety of their own families.
It would seem that, for safe and effective evacuations, uniformed law-enforcement officers are needed. Do our local and state police have the capacity to organize a mass regional evacuation around the Beltway, with, for example, good-old-fashioned traffic cops? And, if regional police are not at full strength, are they even considering bolstering their ranks? The answers to those and other public-safety concerns, such as firefighters and ambulance personnel and equipment, should fall under the purview of Mr. Byrne. D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey said Thursday that his Metropolitan Police Department can respond quickly to any situation that requires an extensive police effort. We respectfully disagree.
While we commend MPD for all its efforts when the Pentagon was struck on September 11, we are not confident that his department could handle a full-scale evacuation of residents, diplomats, tourists and commuters not to mention the expectations on Capitol Hill.
Chief Ramsey testified Tuesday before the D.C. Council that he had anticipated a full complement of officers by the end of January, but that he fell short by 1.4 percent, and the number is actually 3,633. "We continue to face several challenges in meeting our staffing goals," the chief testified. "Budget pressures have impacted the pace of hiring this year. In fact, the department has been unable to hire a recruit class in FY 2003." Moreover, on any given day, hundreds of officers are on leave, in the courthouse waiting to testify, retiring or sitting in patrol cars monitoring speed traps. Those policy-making situations, combined with situations outside the chief's control, spell disaster.
Funding will be the first issue on the table, since the current D.C. budget already faces "budget pressures" and one of Mr. Byrne's chief responsibilities is coordinating funding. Now is the time to begin talks with the Hill about bolstering public-safety forces in the nation's capital. Better to talk about funding now than risk backpedaling later.

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