- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

From combined dispatches

The District, all 50 states and five territories will be able to track terrorist threats in real time with the expansion of the Department of Homeland Security’s information network.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said yesterday that the computerized Joint Regional Information Exchange System (JRIES) allows for the real-time flow of threat information among federal, state and local agencies involved in fighting terrorism — taking it “far beyond current capabilities.”

“We’ll be able to send photos and maps, even streaming video. We’ll even be able to access data at the scene of a crime … through wireless laptops,” Mr. Ridge said at a town hall meeting held at George Mason University.

The Metropolitan Police Department already has had access to JRIES, and the system was demonstrated at police headquarters yesterday. Mr. Ridge said the first phase of expanding the system included giving every state access to it by the fall. The second phase will involve sharing classified information up to the secret level by year’s end.

“I’m certainly proud to have this in Washington, D.C., recognizing the importance of our city as a center of the fight against terrorism,” said D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

While JRIES is used to track potential terrorist or criminal threats, Mr. Ridge said it is just as important to determine when such threats do not exist.

“During last year’s blackout, we learned early on through JRIES that terrorism was not a likely cause,” he said.

The homeland security secretary also warned that Washington could again be the victim of terrorism, and that preparing for that is a top concern.

“We are the nation’s capital, we have been attacked before and we could be attacked again,” Mr. Ridge said at the forum attended by leaders from throughout the Washington area.

Although billions of dollars have been spent on homeland security nationwide since the September 11 attacks at the Pentagon and World Trade Center, Mr. Ridge said preparedness remains the nation’s greatest challenge to minimizing the effect of terrorism.

“A massive public education campaign needs to take place before an incident occurs,” Mr. Ridge said. “There is an integrated plan to deal with surge capacity in the hospitals, traffic control and public safety.”

Local governments in the region were among the first to receive money from the federal government after the terrorist attacks of 2001, but public safety officials who attended the gathering expressed concern about having enough resources.

“What we don’t have is enough gear to sustain an effort over a prolonged period of time,” said Chief Tom Manger of the Montgomery County police.

Chief Manger, the former police chief of Fairfax County, added that public safety agencies from different parts of the region have trained together and participate in conference calls when the Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded alert system is elevated.

The conference calls frequently involve representatives of the 17 local jurisdictions that make up the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Other participants from the state governments of Maryland and Virginia also take part. The agencies work closely with the Homeland Security National-Capital Region Department, which was created specifically to address security concerns affecting the area surrounding Washington.

Officials are encouraging a “shelter in place” strategy for the region, if there is another terrorist attack. They contend that would enable public safety personnel to move resources to areas where they might be needed quickly.

“We have capacity limitations,” said Richard White, general manager of Metro, which operates the region’s subway and major bus system.

Officials also expressed little confidence in their ability to evacuate Washington in the event of an attack, characterizing that as a “very low probability.”

But Dan Tangherlini, the city’s transportation director, said 27 routes designated and marked with signs can now lead residents and commuters out of the city.

The forum was videotaped as a 90-minute program for public television station WETA-TV (Channel 26).

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