The third anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks just passed, and the Sept. 11 commission's report has been sliced and served up a thousand times by a hundred pundits. Still, we wonder: Are we any better prepared?
I can't speak for the nation or the region, but as the leader of Arlington's Public Emergency Communications Task Group, I can say that Arlington has made more progress than most localities in improving public communications for future disasters or attacks. But we still don't have an effective emergency communications system.
The beeping sound your TV makes when the Emergency Alert System's information scrolls across the bottom -- if the TV is on and tuned to a participating channel -- is the main way we provide an emergency warning to the public.
Some people in Arlington and the District also can receive a text warning through their cell phones or pager-based text-messaging system. But for many people, the warning of an emergency will be relayed by neighbors, friends or co-workers -- if at all -- and critical information about what to do about it might be hard to come by.
In my numerous meetings with citizens groups, someone invariably asks, "What happened to the sirens?"
The reference is to the civil defense sirens that were dismantled in the '70s and that now are required only in communities located near hazardous facilities such as nuclear power plants. People want the sirens back, but many elected and appointed officials don't like the idea.
"That's old technology, and we're not going to look at that," one official told me.
But modern sirens are smart. They can be activated individually or as a group. They self-test almost silently (saving extra heartbeats) and work when the power is out or the phone lines are down. They can call for their own maintenance and repair, and they can be used as emergency loudspeakers to communicate information as well as a warning. Most are tamper-proof.
Best of all, they are a relatively cheap solution for urban areas such as Arlington or Alexandria, although admittedly they would not work as well in large, suburban regions like Fairfax.
With a system of sirens in a jurisdiction such as Arlington, no one would have to buy or tune in anything. Sirens would work when people were asleep with their TVs off. They would be the first alert for families on Saturday's soccer fields, pedestrians on our sidewalks or shoppers at the mall. And the cost of a reliable, redundant system for Arlington has been estimated at less than $400,000.
So what's the holdup?
Well, Virginia, as well as the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, agreed that no locality in the region would install new emergency equipment without the consent of all jurisdictions concerned. And last spring, when Arlington County Manager Ron Carlee suggested a study of sirens to the council's Chief Administrative Officers Committee, the committee would not even discuss such a system. Nor is the reasoning for that refusal available to the public.
On Sept. 19, 2003, during the height of Hurricane Isabel, a staffer in Arlington's Emergency Operations Center sat facing a laptop screen with an emergency e-mail alert in case Isabel spawned tornadoes. But with many phone and power lines down and cable TV systems disabled, the message, had it been sent, would have reached only a few thousand text-messaging subscribers.
Don't the rest of us deserve better preparedness, living as near to the seat of national government as we do?
-- Jim Pebley
chairs the Arlington Citizen Corps Council's Public Emergency
Communications Task Group.