Panel recommends D.C. regional operations center to coordinate warnings to public

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2011

A regional joint information center should be created to coordinate public warnings when a storm like the crippling Jan. 26 ice and snow looms, according to recommendations presented to elected officials Wednesday.

The gridlock caused when most of the region's workforce flooded home early that afternoon underscored the need for better early-release policies, the National Capital Region Emergency Preparedness Council said in a report to its parent body.

But the recommendations were criticized as too weak by D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who sits on the board of the parent group, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

"What's missing is to strengthen and focus the decision making," Mendelson said after listening to the report. ". . . So you can tell people you can't go home [until streets are cleared], or you must go home, or to tell Metro to shut down the bus system."

Some people didn't heed warnings to depart before the storm struck, and they tried to get home after ice and snow had coated the roads.

Scores of buses lost traction on icy streets, blocking traffic.

"The results were unacceptable in terms of commuters trying to get home," said Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), chairman of the emergency preparedness panel. "We need more accurate and timely information. Better information will enable us to make better decisions."

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said the "cry wolf syndrome" had turned media warnings into "white noise" that is ignored until people "see the first snowflake fall."

A recommendation from the emergency preparedness panel also included launching a public education campaign to stress the importance of heeding emergency directives.

The challenge of coordinating such efforts is reflected in the makeup of the Council of Governments, which represents 21 local governments, each with authority over emergencies.

A new regional operations center in Greenbelt will eventually digest the area's transportation information and disseminate the data to the public, but decisions would still be the responsibility of the local jurisdictions.

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