The Gulf Coast's hard lessons in disaster response are already on a list of things to be reviewed in Montgomery County's homeland security department.
Officials will reevaluate four key areas of the county's emergency preparedness plan: evacuation routes; shelter management; care and evacuation of hospital patients and other special populations; and logistics management, which includes ensuring that stockpiles of supplies are in place or ready to be deployed.
Formal reviews of the response to Hurricane Katrina, to be undertaken by federal public safety and health officials after the cleanup, are expected to yield still more ideas on improving emergency response plans at all levels of government, said Miguel Ascarrunz, the county's emergency manager.
"Emergency preparedness is a continual improvement process," Ascarrunz said. "I'm sure with all the after-action reviews in the wake of Katrina, a lot more lessons will be learned. For instance, I think most jurisdictions in the country have a lot of work to do on evacuation plans."
Residents are being invited to make their own suggestions and ask questions about the county's disaster plans in forums around the county this month (the federally-designated national preparedness month).
The events will feature an overview of the county's homeland security department, created earlier this year and now staffed with five employees. Among other responsibilities, the department is charged with developing emergency response plans, and with organizing training and exercises on executing those plans.
Also attending the forums will be representatives of departments that work in partnership with homeland security, including police, fire and rescue, public health, public schools, utilities and hospitals.
Forums are scheduled in Silver Spring, Bethesda and Wheaton. The first is Tuesday in Silver Spring.
Helping people become aware of the plan, including what to take along in the event of evacuation, is considered a key part of any community's preparation for and successful response to disaster, whether natural or manmade, Ascarrunz said.
A standard evacuation kit should include food, water, first-aid supplies, a battery-operated radio, clothing and bedding, prescription medications and any special supplies required for the very young and very old.
In addition to this month's forums, Montgomery's outreach efforts include training volunteer community emergency response teams. Residents learn light rescue procedures, such as how to operate a fire extinguisher, and basic first aid, among other techniques.
To help residents better respond to emergencies, the county is rolling out two new emergency communications systems.
The first will allow residents to choose the electronic device on which they want to receive emergency alerts from the county.
The choices include cellular phones, pagers, e-mail and home telephone. Anyone who enters their contact information on the county's Web site (www.montgomerycountymd.gov) will receive electronic alerts about emergencies, severe weather, and hazardous material releases.
The alerts will indicate whether residents are to stay in place or go to emergency shelters.
A second form of electronic communication is known as reverse 911. This system, which is to be launched in October, will use computerized maps to identify geographic areas involved in a disaster. All telephone numbers in the area will be dialed and recorded messages with emergency instructions will be left on answering machines.
Complying with the county's recommended preparations may help reduce anxiety and stress during an emergency, Ascarrunz said.
"A lot of people have the attitude that it can't happen to them," he said. "It's always best to have a personal plan, or a family plan if you have children. . . . All disasters are chaotic by nature, and you just do your best to manage the situation."
Tuesday: 9-10 a.m. Holiday Park Multiservice Senior Center, 3950 Ferrara Dr., Silver Spring.
Next Thursday: 7-9 p.m. Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, 4805 Edgemoor Lane, Bethesda.
Sept. 26: 7-9 p.m. Charles Gilchrist Center, 11319 Elkin St., Wheaton.
For more information, call the Montgomery County Homeland Security Department at 240-777-2200.