Disaster strikes.

Two planes collide at Ronald Reagan National Airport. Many people are injured, some critically. Within minutes emergency medical crews arrive in a coordinated rescue effort. Some victims are treated at the scene; others are transported to the closest hospital. All the injured survive.

Yes, this was a drill. But no one who lives and works in the capital region is immune to the potential dangers of a large-scale accident, or an act of terrorism at our airports or our military or government facilities.

Northern Virginia is doing its best to prepare for the worst. On Sept. 25, all levels of the Virginia Hospital Center staff -- from admitting and triage staff to emergency room physicians -- participated in a drill in conjunction with the airport. The emergency drill was the second in four months.

In May, the simulated emergency was the explosion of a radiological "dirty bomb" at the Pentagon. Many of the hospital's responders on both drills remember all too well Sept. 11, 2001, when the emergency was not simulated.

While all the area's hospitals and emergency response teams are maintaining superior readiness within their own jurisdictions, 12 hospitals -- now known as the Northern Virginia Hospital Alliance -- along with the Arlington Police Department, the Arlington Fire Department, the Arlington Emergency Medical Services crews and the American Red Cross have established an interdepartmental communications system for use during a regional emergency. Through a newly integrated radio communications system and protocols, these emergency response crews can coordinate their actions on a wider scale.

From last month's drill, we learned that Web communication, in addition to radio contact, is beneficial for quick correspondence and cooperation during a regional disaster. A sophisticated patient-tracking system also has become part of the integrated technology plan.

As a member of the Northern Virginia Hospital Alliance and as the closest hospital to Reagan National and the Pentagon, Virginia Hospital Center has made disaster preparedness a primary objective. The need for this kind of response was a consideration in the design of the new hospital's emergency department, which is scheduled to open next month as part of a $150 million construction project.

The emergency department will be 60 percent larger and has expanded bed capacity. It is designed to speed patient access and diagnosis through features such as separate walk-up and ambulance entrances and proximity to radiology.

The emergency department will be equipped with hazardous-material decontamination showers and negative-pressure rooms to contain airborne contaminants. It will be able to treat about 100 contaminated patients an hour.

While we certainly hope that the large-scale emergency we are equipping ourselves to handle will never happen, we will continue to prepare ourselves and our communities for the possibility.

-- John P. Sverha II

chairs the Virginia Hospital

Center Disaster

Preparedness Committee.