Homeland Security Strategy Approved

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006

After two years of painstaking effort, officials from the Washington region approved a homeland security strategic plan yesterday, listing steps to improve disaster response in everything from decontaminating victims of a chemical attack to providing for stranded pets.

The 118-page plan takes aim at one of the main problems in coping with a disaster: the fragmentation of the region, which includes more than 20 cities and counties and scores of federal agencies, spread out over two states and the District.

"This is actually a very significant milestone in regional preparedness," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. He oversaw a meeting of officials from local and state governments and the Department of Homeland Security at which the document was unanimously approved.

"Trying to bring all these folks and cultures to the table . . . is not an easy task. But it's an essential task," Connolly added.

The report was delivered a year later than promised, and several months after a hearing in which U.S. senators blasted regional officials and the Department of Homeland Security for moving too slowly. The plan outlines goals for homeland security spending and activities for the next three years.

Some projects, however, have already begun -- for example, the development of an evacuation plan for the region, and a high-tech communications system for emergency responders.

Officials emphasized that the plan is a blueprint for improvements -- not a manual on responding to a terror attack.

"When something bad happens . . . this is not the document you pick up to figure out what to do," said Edward D. Reiskin, the District's deputy mayor for public safety. Local governments already have such plans, he said.

The region cobbled together a more limited strategic plan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In 2004, the Government Accountability Office called for a broader document that would keep track of the hundreds of millions of dollars in homeland security funds provided to the Washington area.

"Our story from the beginning has been, you need to be able to know what monies have been available, and what they've been spent on," to figure out what is still needed, said William O. Jenkins Jr., director of homeland security issues at GAO.

Drawing up the plan turned out to be an elaborate process, because it involved so many officials at different levels of government, as well as business groups and nonprofit organizations, officials said. A consulting firm, Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., was hired to help complete the job.

Even so, some of the officials who approved the plan yesterday said it still had shortcomings, including bureaucratic jargon that would make a Pentagon procurement officer proud.

D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), a member of the regional Emergency Preparedness Council, said she had complained about the jargon, only to be told that the document was essentially for use "in-house" by government officials.

"All these plans are great . . . but I think we've got to communicate what we have done to the general public," Schwartz said, calling for the inclusion of average citizens in the planning process.

The new plan is divided into four areas. The first, "Planning and Decision-making," includes such steps as hiring and training more staff and testing the effectiveness of programs. The second, "Community Engagement," includes programs to set up an outdoor emergency warning system and provide homeland security messages in different languages.

The third area, "Prevention and Protection," involves such projects as improving communication among first-responders and increasing the number of hospital beds for a crisis. The fourth, "Response and Recovery," tackles such needs as decontaminating victims of a chemical attack and purchasing more satellite telephones for each jurisdiction.

Each objective includes a timeline and budget estimate. Officials plan to review the plan every three months, to measure progress.

"It's an effort to do a better job in putting the region on the same footing for priorities and long-term planning," said David F. Snyder, a Falls Church City Council member who, like Schwartz, is a member of the Emergency Preparedness Council. "It does not ensure, however, that tomorrow, all the agencies in the region will function as though they were part of one well-oiled machine."

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