Coming to a congested intersection near you: citizens on patrol.
County supervisors have agreed to allow the police department to deputize ordinary Fairfax residents to direct traffic on neighborhood roads and at intersections across the county. Called the Volunteer Traffic Control Program, the plan is aimed at easing the workload on a strained police agency as it simultaneously tries to solve a spate of gang violence and address homeland security issues on top of its usual law enforcement duties, program coordinators said.
"For us, it's more of a force multiplier," said police Capt. Dennis Wilson, commander of the Sully District substation, which is organizing the first team of volunteers. "It's a prime example of how the community and the police can come together and resolve an issue of mutual concern."
The program is also a sign of how bad traffic is these days: Now the county is turning to its own residents to manage congestion.
"Anytime you go out to a community meeting and the first three questions you've been hit with are not traffic-related, then you've been inadvertently teleported to Halifax," Nova Scotia, said Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee). "Especially because we are dealing with more issues such as gangs, the more we can use an auxiliary police force, the more we can leverage the existing resources we have."
The unpaid auxiliary traffic cops, who could hit the county's clogged streets as early as this month, will wear an orange police cap and a high-visibility vest marked with "TRAFFIC CONTROL." They will be issued police whistles -- but no firearms, and only those older than 18 can apply. They will not have authority to issue traffic tickets, but the citizen patrols can take down offending drivers' license plate numbers and file a report with their superiors. Major intersections, such as those in Tysons Corner, will continue to be patrolled by regular, paid Fairfax police officers.
Wilson said the volunteer force could be a vital resource during times of emergency or disaster. He pointed out that the department needed trained volunteers to direct traffic when Hurricane Isabel struck the area last fall.
"We lost so much power, and we had traffic lights out all over," he said. "A lot of issues could have been resolved if we could have called on these folks to assist us on that traffic control."
The idea for the program was sparked by the congestion caused by the thousands of parishioners who attend Mass at St. Timothy in Chantilly. Every Sunday afternoon, the backups before and after services extended down Poplar Tree Road, spilling over onto Stringfellow Road.
Neighbors and church leaders hatched a plan to direct cars themselves. It was a bright idea, except that it was illegal, recounted Byron Beall of Centreville, a parishioner who helped with the church's traffic control.
Beall approached Wilson about changing the law. Inspired by a similar program in Stafford County, Wilson, Beall and several others spent the next 13 months lobbying the county staff to revise the county code to allow the creation of a volunteer force.
At its May 24 meeting, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the change.
Beall is among the first dozen volunteers to sign up for the program, which requires that they undergo a full criminal background check.
On June 19, he will attend an eight-hour class to learn the rules of traffic direction. He said he wanted to do it as a community service.
"We have one of the best police departments in the country," he added. "It is like a surgeon, and [traffic on neighborhood roads] is like going to a surgeon's office because you need a band-aid. Well, we're here to be the band-aid."