Michael F. Byrne, a former New York City firefighter who helped direct the federal government's response at the Word Trade Center, yesterday was named the first homeland security coordinator for the Washington area.
Byrne, 48, will become the key federal contact for officials in the District, Virginia and Maryland, responsible for helping prepare the region and coordinating a response if an attack takes place.
Byrne, whose post was mandated by the law that created the new Homeland Security Department, will assume his post March 9. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced his appointment.
Byrne's role gives the national capital area a liaison to the department that no other U.S. city or region has -- a recognition that the Washington area is unique because it is the center of the federal government. Moreover, the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, revealed the need to coordinate a response in a region with multiple local, state and federal jurisdictions.
"This position recognizes the complexity of the national capital area," Byrne, a New York City native, said in an interview. "The fact that it is three different jurisdictions and three different branches of government, the largest federal presence in the nation and the symbolic and physical seat of our government, it requires some special attention."
The Bush administration initially opposed setting a precedent for large cities but acquiesced at the urging of Congress. The region's business community lobbied area lawmakers to create a single point of contact in the new bureaucracy, and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) pushed the idea.
Byrne's appointment was announced at a meeting of 80 Washington area business leaders at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. He pledged to overcome psychological and political obstacles and to "recognize what the real threats are, prioritize those threats in terms of risks and costs and mobilize."
The homeland security office will not supplant the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in a crisis or the operational authority of state and District leaders. But it formalizes a role Byrne has played in the region.
The legislation makes Byrne a key figure in getting funding and other support for area governments and in helping coordinate the regional response among governments and the private sector.
Byrne, who became a part of Ridge's team early on, led a drive to increase FEMA's role in equipping and training state and local "first responders," such as police, fire and medical workers.
"I am pleased that Secretary Ridge has chosen someone who already has hands-on experience in working with issues relating to homeland security," Sarbanes said in a written statement.
Ridge affirmed the government's responsibility in the capital area in a brief conversation with Robert A. Peck, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
"We can't take away the fact [that] we get special attention from the bad guys. What we can do is to be a model for preparation; that's what we agreed ought to be our joint goal," Peck said.
Participants at yesterday's closed-door meeting were members of the board of directors for the trade board, a group that includes university presidents, corporate leaders and many other civic leaders. Byrne was peppered with pointed questions, according to several participants, the tone and urgency reflecting the worries of a region that was singled out with New York as a possible target for attack this month.
C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr., president of the University of Maryland, which has a student population of 35,000, asked if the federal government had an evacuation plan and how that would apply to his campus. Byrne said he would work with area universities and businesses to coordinate their plans with the government's plans.
Byrne, described as "New York smart and tough," was chief deputy of that city's office of emergency management and later head of strategic planning for its fire department. He then served as FEMA's director of response and recovery in the New York region.
Byrne said he would consider creating a private-sector advisory council, and he will review a white paper on the office's role being prepared by Michael Armstrong of ICF Consulting for the Board of Trade.