Sept. 11 Reflections And Remembrances

The memorial in downtown Rockville to the 11 Montgomery County victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The memorial in downtown Rockville to the 11 Montgomery County victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Gordon Aoyagi
Thursday, September 7, 2006

On Monday, we observe the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. I hope we all pause to honor those who lost their lives on that day in New York, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa. It is important that we all commemorate those who sacrificed so much and remember their bravery in the face of uncertainty.

That day is a reminder of how we all benefit from the commitment and dedication of our first responders, who demonstrated their overriding commitment to duty: to serve and to prevent harm. And we acknowledge that it was not only that day, but every day that our responders are there to help us with our emergencies.

It is only natural that we look for meaning in the tragic events of 9/11. What have we learned, what have we lost? We ask, "Are we better prepared today than we were then?" in hopes of avoiding future tragedies. But given the events that have occurred since then, we must also ask: prepared for what?

We have faced a series of tragedies and emergencies since 9/11. Some have been brought on by the capriciousness of nature; others by the sinister nature of man.

In Montgomery County after 9/11, we experienced the events of anthrax and the heightened fear of bioterrorism. We responded to a passenger train derailment during the heat of a summer day. Over several weeks one fall, we were the focus of two snipers who brought fear and death to our region. Then Hurricane Isabel visited. Recently, we experienced extreme rainstorms that resulted in flooding throughout the county and an evacuation order for more than 2,000 people because of high water levels and a potentially weakened dam at Lake Needwood. Then a drought and a prolonged period of excessive heat threatened some of our most vulnerable residents.

These events show us that we ask a lot of first responders -- to be prepared for "all hazards." And we ask the same of those departments and agencies that support emergency responses and the hospitals that receive the victims.

We have worked hard to equip and train our first responders, emergency support personnel and hospitals locally and to coordinate these efforts regionally under robust and seamless mutual aid arrangements with our neighboring jurisdictions in the national capital region. This collaboration and coordination extends throughout the state of Maryland.

Fire, police and public health personnel have additional protective equipment to deal with a wide variety of incidents, including weapons of mass destruction. Workers have been trained and equipped with better response, mitigation and detection equipment. Hospitals and public health officials are coordinating reports through a disease surveillance system. Law enforcement agencies are sharing and coordinating intelligence and investigative reports. Special equipment has been or is being acquired for hospital surge capacity, mass casualty response, patient identification and patient database management for disease investigation. Under special arrangement with our federal agencies in the county, we have the ability to expand hospital surge capacity with Suburban Hospital during emergencies.

In our region, first responders can talk to each other. This capability is enhanced with a store of about 1,200 radios that can be deployed in response to any incident. Information is also distributed rapidly within the region and the state of Maryland through emergency alert and communications systems.

Our region responded effectively to the attack on the Pentagon, but our capabilities have been enhanced through improved communications, training and standardized procedures for incident command. In addition, there is a great deal of planning regarding local, regional and state coordination of evacuation plans, pandemic flu response and emergency support functions.

Our response capability in the national capital region is robust and layered -- regional partners support each other every day, as well as in major emergencies. We can call upon many of our Maryland counties for aid. In addition, we have the National Guards of Virginia, Maryland and the District as well as support from the military through the Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region of the U.S. Northern Command.

We are prepared and will continue to improve our capabilities. We also acknowledge that more can and must be done. Governments -- the county, the state and the federal government -- are coordinating their efforts to improve our preparedness and response.

But we all realize that the resilience of our communities and our nation lies in the indomitable spirit of our people. Some of this has to do with our optimism that we can overcome all adversity. Some is attributable to our belief in the empowerment of our democracy and the strength of our diversity. And perhaps some is attributable to our sense of our preparedness. But this preparedness cannot be the sole providence of government. It is a partnership between the government and the people.

There are limits of government, particularly in emergencies, when our primary focus is responding to and mitigating the emergency. Resiliency has much to do with empowerment -- knowing what to do, having a plan, being ready . . . for emergencies.

While government is preparing for all hazards, the follow-up question is, "How are you and your family prepared for emergencies?" Have you developed a disaster kit for sheltering in place or evacuating your family and pets? Do you have special needs, and if so, how will you provide for them in an emergency? Do you have a plan for communications and unification of family members in emergencies?

We all need to work together -- to be prepared.

Aoyagi is director of the Montgomery County Homeland Security Department.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company