The Council of Governments, concerned that the Washington area is poorly prepared for large-scale emergencies such as the crash of an Air Florida jet into the Potomac last month, yesterday appointed a nine-member task force to devise a detailed plan for such accidents.
D.C. City Councilman David Clarke, head of COG's public safety committee, called for a larger federal role in preparing for accidents near National Airport, which is owned and operated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Local governments do not have the needed rescue equipment, he said.
Rescue units from around the area raced to the 14th Street bridge after the jet struck it Jan. 13 during a heavy snowfall. Seventy-eight people were killed, including one man who survived the impact but sank in the icy water before rescue workers could get him out.
Five people were pulled from the water alive and hospitalized. The loss of the man and the fact that rescuers lacked rafts, helicopters with pontoons and other potentially useful equipment has raised criticism that preparation was inadequate.
Thirty minutes after the plane crash, a Metrorail train derailed near the Smithsonian station, killing three passengers and setting off another large-scale rescue that has been criticized as slow.
At present, Clarke said, area fire and police departments have "mutual aid" agreements to send units into other jurisdictions if requested. But these plans are geared toward ordinary emergencies--fires, for instance--and were inadequate on Jan. 13, he said.
Clarke said that rescue teams at the bridge were badly coordinated. Some units, he said, arrived without being summoned and on-scene commanders had difficulty talking to those they were controlling because radios were not compatible.
There was some inter-jurisdictional rivalry at the scene, he said, though he called it minor. Members of the Arlington fire department, among the first to reach the bridge, were miffed when D.C. fire units arrived at the scene and relieved them of command, Clarke told reporters.
He said that COG should also realize that National "is itself a danger." The airport, built in the 1930s, has been criticized for having short runways and curved approach and departure routes.
Last year, COG requested funds from the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop a regional plan for such a crash. But no funds were available for that purpose, a department spokesman said, noting that federal and area officials have met frequently to discuss airport safety.