In the Event Of an Emergency . . .

Eugene Beach escorts Janice Schechter in the Belle View area after Hurricane Isabel. An ongoing project aims to reduce flooding there and improve the evacuation plan.
Eugene Beach escorts Janice Schechter in the Belle View area after Hurricane Isabel. An ongoing project aims to reduce flooding there and improve the evacuation plan. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and recent natural disasters such as hurricanes Isabel and Katrina have raised questions about the ability of local governments to prepare for emergencies.

To respond to those concerns, County Executive Anthony H. Griffin recently presented a report on emergency planning and preparedness in Fairfax that includes details on how county officials would respond to an attack or disaster. As he briefed the Board of Supervisors, Griffin made clear that under Virginia and Fairfax law, he would be the leader in any emergency.

"I want our residents to know that when bad things happen, the county will respond and work 24-7 until we have resolved the situation," Griffin told the elected officials.

The county executive is empowered to declare a local emergency and can order residents to evacuate. If the county needs help, Griffin would request aid from state officials, who in turn can contact the federal government.

"One question that has been raised lately is, 'What if the federal government doesn't respond?' " Griffin said. "Because of our location and proximity to the nation's capital, we don't have to worry as much about that possibility as other localities across the country."

Griffin was blunt in advising Fairfax residents about what they should do.

"I cannot emphasize enough the importance of being prepared," he said. "As residents of Fairfax County, we must take personal responsibility and be prepared to sustain ourselves for a minimum of three days in the event of an emergency."

Here are highlights of the county's preparedness plan, as unveiled on Oct. 17:

Preparations for a Severe Weather Disaster

County storm water planners are collaborating with the Army Corps of Engineers on a project to reduce the potential for flooding and update the evacuation plan for the Belle View-New Alexandria community, which was flooded after Hurricane Isabel in 2003. A RiverWatch Internet message list was created and a hurricane communication plan developed for those residents to enable them to receive e-mails during weather that could cause flooding.

The solid waste division has installed radiological equipment at the landfill and transfer station to detect radioactive material that could result from a terrorist attack.

The public works department has a debris management plan and a contract for debris removal with a private company.

Fairfax was the first county in Virginia to be accredited as "storm ready." This nationwide program operated by the National Weather Service helps communities protect residents during severe weather by improving their hazardous-weather operations. The StormReady program focuses on enhancing communication and preparedness through outreach and public awareness efforts. As part of its accreditation effort, the county used grant funds to purchase 500 weather radios and distributed them to county facilities.

The county Web site and emergency information Web page are vital sources for residents. During severe weather, preparedness information can be found online. Channel 16 will run a crawl message at the top of the television screen or a full-screen text message, as officials did during Hurricane Isabel.

Preparations for a Bioterrorism Attack on Fairfax

A scenario with huge transportation implications, Griffin said, would be moving the county's 1.1 million residents to and from mass medication-dispensing sites if there were a bioterrorism attack that required medication to be distributed within three to five days.

Residents would be instructed through the media on when and where to go. Reporting to the sites would be done in stages, based on the first letters of residents' last names. County school buses would pick up people at their neighborhood high school bus stop and take them to the 24 high schools identified as dispensing sites.

One undisclosed site in the county has been selected to receive the Strategic National Stockpile for areas affected by a medical emergency. The stockpile, owned by the federal Department of Homeland Security and managed by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, would provide medications to support mass dispensing sites, as well as a range of medical equipment and supplies necessary to care for the ill or injured. The county was picked to serve as the home of a regional stockpile that would be needed to respond to a major mass casualty incident.

County health officials conduct daily surveillance of hospital emergency department patients to look for unusual patterns or illnesses that could be related to bioterrorism. There is also a regional electronic surveillance and notification system.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company