- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The gym at the Boys and Girls Club in Manassas was filled with local community residents this month, eagerly waiting in the gym to get started.

It was the third annual City of Manassas Neighborhood Conference, and the focus of the day was to “prepare residents for all the hazards and offer the tools necessary to make a difference in each neighborhood and the greater Manassas community,” according to promotional literature.

Residents of various communities sat under handmade banners, painted by Manassas Boys and Girls Club members and announcing their geographic allegiances, while listening to the opening address from Mayor Hal Parrish.

“The work that you do today will make our community, this community, your community, better,” he said.

Some residents chose to attend a workshop titled You’ve Got a Neighborhood Emergency! Are You Ready? which focused on preparing Manassas residents for a situation in which they might need emergency supplies, evacuation plans and special preparations.

Emergency Management Deputy Coordinator Bob Halsall said the focus of his presentation was to explain to people the importance of the day’s goal. “Make a kit, have a plan, be informed,” he said.

Mr. Halsall’s Manassas home was hit by a tornado in 2004, so he has felt firsthand the effects of disaster and knows the importance of preparing people for the worst.

Leading the workshop on emergency preparedness, he focused on informing participants about what they should have on hand in case of an emergency and how they could adapt in a situation in which communications might be disabled.

“We learned on 9/11 that our pagers, our cell phones, were virtually useless,” Mr. Halsall told the group. “You got more use out of them as a paperweight.”

Mr. Halsall also went through common misconceptions and quizzed the group on everything from how much water they should have on hand (1 gallon per person per day for a minimum of three days) to special accommodations for people with disabilities (such as to remember mobility devices and prescription medications).

“Ultimately, we want people to think for themselves and realize how honestly prepared they honestly are,” Mr. Halsall said.

Mr. Halsall and Chief Fire Marshal Frank Teevan also encouraged attendees to sign up for Fire Corps, a volunteer organization being designed to free up rescue personnel for major emergencies by turning over some responsibilities to trained community members. The program, which has been granted money for start-up operations, has not yet started officially and is expected to increase recruitment activities after Jan. 1.

Other workshops available in the morning were Community Living and Youth Cafe: Shake Up the Neighborhood, which focused on specific issues with seniors and teenagers, respectively.

In the afternoon, Manassas residents could choose between learning about starting or joining a Neighborhood Watch program, applying for funding for community projects, or a explanation of zoning and local ordinances.

All of the workshops were designed to meet the specific needs of Manassas residents and enable them to be proactive locally.

John Matthews, executive director of the Community Safety Institute and a former police officer, echoed the importance of active citizens in community safety during his keynote address.

Mr. Matthews pointed out that there are just 900,000 police officers to protect millions of Americans, and he asked, “How can so few protect so many?”

The answer, he said, lies in “proactive law enforcement, supportive local government, and community mobilization.” These three things add up to community safety, he said.

“When we pool our resources as a community, it’s absolutely amazing what we can achieve,” Mr. Matthews told the crowd.

One of the best ways for individuals in a community to pool their resources is to start a Neighborhood Watch.

Chris Tutko, former Manassas police chief, said Neighborhood Watch has changed a lot since the programs started popping up. Now, he says, much of the emphasis is on taking care of neighbors and the neighborhood in the event of an emergency.

“You have to take care of yourselves,” Mr. Tutko said. “If the police department can’t come, if you don’t communicate with your neighbors, what are you going to do?”

Mr. Tutko said that the Neighborhood Watch helps get neighbors talking to one another. That way they can learn things like “who has a ladder” or “who has a map,” which can both be critical in an emergency situation.

• Meredith Hulley is a writer, photographer and University of Maryland student.

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