Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff suggested yesterday that Washington area jurisdictions designate a site for a joint emergency command center where government representatives would convene in the event of a catastrophic incident.
Chertoff put forward the idea during a closed half-hour meeting with D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). The officials met at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington to discuss regional issues, including the coordination of information and analysis coming from federal sources.
Chertoff recommended locating the joint command facility at the Transportation Security Operations Center in Herndon. The center was activated in 2003 by the Transportation Security Administration to serve as a single point of contact during crises in aviation or ground transportation, among other functions. It shares space with the National Capital Region Coordination Center, which runs the region's air defense system.
Williams said a new emergency management facility that the District is building in Southeast Washington is another possible site for a joint command center. That building is expected to be completed by April.
"The proposal was the transportation security center, which is big enough to hold the counties, Maryland, Virginia -- everybody involved," Williams said at his weekly news briefing after the meeting with Chertoff.
"He's open to any number of sites as long as we have one site, and I totally agree that we need one site," Williams said. The mayor added that one of the lessons from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when key officials were isolated from one another, "is that you need everybody in one place."
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said the Herndon center has state-of-the-art communications and other sophisticated technology and is secure.
During yesterday's meeting with Williams and Ehrlich, "the secretary talked about the unique dynamics involved with having the District, the two state governments and the federal government right here," Knocke said.
"And within that context, the secretary discussed the possibility of co-locating our national capital region partners in a facility like the one in Northern Virginia in the event of a catastrophic incident."
Gregory Massoni, Ehrlich's press secretary, said the three officials discussed several potential locations for a joint command center, as well as the possibility of using mobile units.
Massoni said Ehrlich recommended that they consider a Maryland location. "If something were to happen in Maryland, sending the governor to Herndon is not the answer," Massoni said.
Sharon Gang, a spokeswoman for Williams, said representatives from the District and Maryland -- rather than principals such as the mayor and the governor -- would be sent to the Herndon facility in the event of an emergency. She noted that the District already has some representation there.
At a news briefing, Ehrlich said he went to the meeting in part to discuss lessons learned from an incident Oct. 18 involving a possible plot to blow up a truck full of explosives in a Baltimore area tunnel.
Ehrlich has expressed dismay that after Maryland officials decided to close the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, snarling traffic along a busy stretch of Interstate 95, some federal law enforcement officials sent mixed signals to the news media about the seriousness of the threat.
The governor said he reiterated to Chertoff during the meeting that "we depend on the federal government for information, intelligence and, in many cases, recommendations" for how to respond to a possible threat.
"This is art, not science. We know that," Ehrlich said, adding that he believes the FBI "gave us their best recommendation."
Williams said Chertoff agreed to sit down again with area leaders to work further on homeland security issues.
"I think we've made a lot of headway, but I want us to continue to move forward," Williams said.
Staff writers Matthew Mosk and Spencer S. Hsu and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.