By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 5, 2007
It has been eight years since Darrell Darnell applied for work in a newly established Justice Department office that helped states and cities prepare for a catastrophic attack.
It was a tiny office, with about 20 employees. But Darnell, who had come to Justice after a 20-year career in the Air Force, was intrigued.
"At that time, the 'homeland security' phrase wasn't even in the lexicon," Darnell recalled. "None of us could have imagined we'd be where we are today."
Darnell is now Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's choice for director of the city's Emergency Management Agency. If confirmed as expected, he will occupy a job that is being elevated to include the homeland-security duties formerly held by the deputy mayor for public safety.
Unlike his predecessor, Barbara Childs-Pair, Darnell steps into the job with a background in disaster preparations with the federal government. At Justice and subsequently the Department of Homeland Security, Darnell tried to prepare cities and states for catastrophes and worked on national anti-terrorism exercises.
"He's perfect for the job," said his former boss, Timothy Beres, who was director of local and state coordination programs at Homeland Security.
Darnell's federal experience came in handy when he began working as acting director of the District agency last month. DHS had set today as the deadline for cities and states to apply for annual anti-terrorism grants. Darnell jumped into the process.
"I understand the grant process. I understand some of the rationales and the thinking behind the grant process," Darnell said. And with his experience, he said, he could call Homeland Security officials and ask: "Are we on the right path, in terms of what we're doing?"
D.C. officials were angered last year when Homeland Security slashed grants to Washington and other big cities, after giving them low grades on their applications. Darnell said that he couldn't comment on the city's 2006 petition but that the current application is "as robust as it possibly can be." Still, he noted: "No matter how well we put together our application, I think at the federal level there's a limited amount of funding dollars."
Darnell was approached for the emergency-management job by Fenty's transition team. The former DHS official knows the District well: After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, he assisted city officials with emergency operations planning. Among those he worked with was Dan Tangherlini, the current city administrator, who was then head of the D.C. Department of Transportation.
The D.C. emergency-management agency has just 41 employees. It doesn't own much disaster equipment; rather, its job is to ensure that all city agencies are prepared to respond to emergencies and to coordinate them in a crisis.
Darnell said he doesn't have grand plans for the development of the agency, but instead is concentrating on the basics.
"My main focus is to make sure we have a really well-trained and educated professional Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency," he said, using the organization's new name.
Darnell, 47, who grew up in Ohio, says he began his career in the Air Force"gassing up airplanes." Over 20 years, he rose to become training manager for aircraft maintenance and then first sergeant with the 93rd Airlift Squadron at Andrews Air Force Base. He lives in Prince George's County with his wife, a D.C. native, and their two children. He plans to move to Washington.
For the past year, Darnell has worked in Northern Virginia for a firm consulting on homeland security. He said he was thrilled to get the D.C. job offer.
As a consultant, "you're making suggestions," he noted. "You're not the one who gets to implement."