On Jan. 13, 1982, the day Air Florida Flight 90 struck the 14th Street bridge and crashed into the icy Potomac River, rescue attempts were hampered by chaos. There was little coordination between rescue workers from different jurisdictions, no clearly defined command structure, and a confused communication system, with some workers using the wrong radio frequencies.
Yesterday, a half dozen of the key players shaping a new regional disaster plan told a Senate subcommittee investigating the Washington area's emergency preparedness that while many of those problems have been resolved, some major roadblocks remain.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments is now coordinating the writing of the regional plan. But Dr. Mark Smith, associate director of George Washington University Medical Center's division of emergency medicine, said only the District now has its own internal plan for dealing with disasters with mass casualties.
Smith told Sen, Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.), the subcommittee chairman, that no mechanism exists to allow rescue workers immediate access to buses or vans that might be needed to transport "walking wounded" to emergency rooms from disaster scenes.
And Dave McLoughlin, deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is responsible for coordinating the federal response to disasters, told the committee that his agency has no authority over local Army bases and their facilities. Only base commanding officers can dispatch men or equipment to a disaster, he said.
McLoughlin also pointed out what he called another "ticklish question": Protocol still dictates that local governments first go through their state capitals before requesting federal emergency assistance, which could slow down response or let political rivalries influence the decisions.
Mathias also heard Patrick S. Korten, an official with the federal Office of Personnel Management, defend the controversial decision to tell federal employes to report to work during a blizzard Feb. 11 or lose a leave day. That day, two feet of snow fell, paralyzing the Washington area. Korten received a 4 a.m. telephone call from Metro's assistant general manager letting him know that the subway would be in "pretty good shape" for the morning rush hour.
By 10 a.m., Korten said, the situation changed for the worse. The predicted 11 inches of snow grew to two feet, the temperature dropped into the teens, making road salting useless, and Metro was now telling Korten that all bets were off on the subway system remaining in operation much longer.
Korten said 75 percent of the federal work force here took the day off that Friday. By noon, after consulting with Metro and District officials, he sent the remaining federal workers home, trying to stagger their departures by agency.
He said several factors influenced the decision, including potential resentment from private-sector workers who don't get liberal leave when it snows, and the fact that many federal employes live within a short distance of their offices, particularly suburban offices.
At times defensive and at other times apologetic yesterday, Korten told Mathias that the decision whether or not to tell federal employes to report to work is still largely a matter of holding a finger to the winds of Washington's unpredictable weather. "In the final analysis," Korten said, "It still comes down to a judgment call."