As Fairfax County emergency crews converged on a Department of Defense mailroom in Baileys Crossroads on Monday afternoon, county officials learned for the first time about a biohazard alert at a Pentagon mailroom -- four hours earlier.
Doug Bass, the Fairfax emergency management coordinator, said he was contacted by his counterpart from Arlington County government, not by the Department of Defense. "Until then, no one had connected Fairfax with Arlington," Bass said yesterday.
Members of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department load their gear before leaving the Defense Department mail facility in Baileys Crossroads.
(Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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Pentagon officials said they have found no connection between the anthrax scare in Arlington and the alert four miles away in Fairfax, where sensors detected a suspicious biological substance, calling the two incidents an apparent coincidence. After tests came back positive for anthrax, officials said they followed their standard response plan in alerting emergency officials in Arlington, who then told Fairfax.
But angry Fairfax officials raised questions yesterday about why the Pentagon had not alerted them and others in the region to a potential biological threat. Those concerns were echoed by others in government at levels as high as the White House.
Some question whether the lessons of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- where coordination problems marred what was called an otherwise exemplary first response at the Pentagon -- had been learned.
"We went through this on 9/11,'' said Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D). "The federal government has to understand that it functions in the context of local government."
Fairfax Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason), whose district includes the three affected buildings in Baileys Crossroads, called the breakdown in communication "another example of the federal government dissing Fairfax."
The federal government shared the concerns.
A Bush administration official said the White House and other agencies were alarmed at what they considered the Pentagon's tardiness in notifying other parts of government about the initial positive test results for anthrax. Monday night, "significant concern was raised by the highest levels of government about notifications by the Department of Defense," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Officials were especially concerned that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which has a key role in coordinating the government's response to any health disaster, was not immediately alerted. Spokesman Bill Hall said the department was not initially made aware of the Pentagon incident and found out only after the Fairfax alarm sounded Monday afternoon.
After the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and the anthrax attacks that followed, a Justice Department-funded report praised the actions of Arlington officials who oversaw the massive rescue operation at the Pentagon. But the report said coordination and logistics needed to be improved.
Federal and local officials set up an elaborate system to notify the Washington region about biological and other threats. The Pentagon said it followed those procedures Monday.
Bryan Whitman, a top Pentagon spokesman, said defense officials moved swiftly after the initial alert that anthrax might have been present in the building, notifying local authorities as part of a set procedure.
"The department acted very aggressively," Whitman said, in dealing with the incident and notifying surrounding communities and agencies. He added that the situation will allow Pentagon officials "to evaluate our procedures and decide whether or not we can improve them from an incident management standpoint."
At the Arlington emergency operations center, the phone call came in Monday morning on a line directly connected to the Pentagon's communication center.
"They said: This is the Pentagon, here's what we've got, we need your hazardous materials teams," county Fire Chief James Schwartz said yesterday.
Arlington officials immediately dispatched at least 20 emergency workers to the scene, where they aided Pentagon crews that had isolated the suspect mail facility.
Schwartz said he is "very confident that the moment they had anything, they let us know." He added that Arlington emergency officials meet with their Pentagon counterparts "on an unbelievably frequent basis" to coordinate the response to biological or other attacks.
Each anthrax event "reinforces the need to put a premium on getting information to all the relevant stakeholders in the response, and most importantly, getting regular, timely and accurate information to the general public at large," said George W. Foresman, homeland security adviser to Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). "The way to make sure we help the public ameliorate their individual fear . . . is through communication and information flow."
Staff writers Tom Jackman, Allan Lengel, John Mintz, Spencer S. Hsu and Josh White contributed to this report.