We got to the moon in less than a decade. The Allies won World War II in six years. Should it take longer than that to pick the best way to tell people whether it’s safe to go home?
These gaping holes in the region’s crisis plans are dramatic and potentially deadly examples of the chronic shortcomings that arise from our area’s fragmented government structure.
It’s hard enough to pry a common decision out of just the District, Maryland and Virginia. Add 20 county and municipal governments as well as various federal agencies and Congress, and it’s beyond our capacity.
“The big failing is the inability of the region to draw up and send out to the public messages about what’s happening in a crisis event,” said David Snyder, a Falls Church City Council member and longtime representative on the emergency preparedness committee of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
“The effect of this gap is that the public doesn’t know what to do, and it creates chaos in the region. We’ve seen that on 9/11 and afterward,” such as in the Jan. 26 snowstorm and last month’s earthquake, Snyder said.
As you’ll recall, in the two events this year, many federal and private offices tried to send people home early, and at the same time. Needless to say, nobody went anywhere very fast. Some commutes lasted three hours or much longer.
Imagine the same gridlock if terrorists released poisonous gas or set off a radiation-spewing dirty bomb.
To be fair, the region gets good marks for improving preparedness in numerous ways since the 2001 attacks. Unlike most of the country, it’s created a shared communication system so firefighters, police and emergency medical workers can talk to each other regardless of which local government they serve.
The area has also installed surveillance systems to monitor for nuclear or bioterrorist attacks. Thanks in part to $562 million in federal grants, we’ve got top-of-the-line bomb squads, robots and hazardous material units.
But despite years of discussions and prodding by some elected officials, there’s still a lot of fuzziness over who will be in charge.
If you doubt it, just read the guidelines distributed Thursday by the Council of Governments itself. In advance of the 9/11 anniversary, it sent out five pages of “Frequently Asked Questions” and recommended answers to its board of directors and other top officials.
The answer to “Who is in charge during emergencies?” says in part: “There is no single person, office, level or branch of government vested with the ability to direct the full range of preparedness and response activities across all others in the region.”
It goes on to say that incidents are addressed first at the local level, then at the state level and finally at the federal level. But it doesn’t say at what point responsibility passes from one to the other — even for something that could affect everybody, like a partial or full evacuation.
“There’s really not been a decision about how decision-making will be simplified,” said D.C. Council Member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), another member of the emergency preparedness committee. “A lot of people working on emergency response are spending more of their energy talking about it than actually resolving it.”
Although Snyder and Mendelson have been the most prominent gadflies on the issue, business leaders and others are concerned as well.
Lynne Breaux, president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, expressed concern for the safety of tourists, conventioneers and others who patronize the 700 restaurants she represents.
“Who is in charge is an issue that must be resolved,” Breaux said. “It’d be great to know that some person would get on the air, whatever air is available, and give direction.”
Snyder said Washington is far behind some other metropolitan areas, based on his own experience. The quality of public communication impressed him when he was in London during a failed subway bombing attempt in 2005.
“I was sitting in a government office. A loudspeaker came on at 1 p.m. and said: Here’s what happened, here’s what we’re doing about it, stay in your offices,” Snyder said.
The same message was repeated at 3 p.m. At 5 p.m., the voice over the loudspeaker said everybody was free to leave.
Hopefully we’ll never need such a system for a terrorist attack. But it would be plenty useful in a snowstorm.