Fire Departments Adjust to New Landscape

Fire Departments Adjust to New Landscape

Alexandria, Fairfax County Beef Up Response Capabilities

One year after the catastrophic commencement of America's War on Terrorism, both the Alexandria Fire Department and the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department have made significant upgrades to training and equipment.

"It changed our vision as to what our job really is. Potentially, it could be any day when the other shoe drops. That is particularly true here in Alexandria with the federal courthouse," warned Alexandria fire chief Thomas M. Hawkins.

Hawkins.ndria Fire Chief Thomas"There has been a lot more emphasis within the city government to upgrade our disaster response capabilities. We can thank our city manager, Phil Sunderland, for a great deal of this support," he added.

Chief Edward L. Stinnette, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, echoed Hawkins' appraisal of a changed landscape since Sept. 11, 2001. "Our unified command procedures have been aggressively increased," he said. "The Board of Supervisors has made money available for our hazardous materials teams to now be operative 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They can now focus on hazmat situations full-time," Stinnette emphasized.

Alexandria's department is also placing more emphasis on hazardous material situations. "There's been an adjustment in our training to place more emphasis on hazmat threats. We are hiring more people to pick up the slack when people are receiving increased training, and we have gone to two battalion chiefs per shift to give more support to existing staff," Hawkins explained.

TO AID IN THIS heightened preparedness, the city received a $2.3 million federal grant, which was used to fund a new hazmat unit, increase hazmat equipment and training, purchase a new ladder truck and new apparatus for Heavy Technical Rescue, and upgrade the emergency operations center, according to Hawkins. City funds have also been used to upgrade the department's breathing apparatus.

Fairfax County is seeking additional outside funds to bulk up its operations across the board, Stinnette said. They have gotten new equipment to aid in their bioterrorism preparedness.

"In order to be ready for any bioterrorism threat, we have formed an Emergency Management Coordinating Committee to bring all county agencies together if there is an incident. Agencies now have a coordinated response procedure," Stinnette confirmed.

"All agencies that would have a role in such a response have attended a two-day training session. The object is to have them gain a good understanding of what they would be expected to do in such a situation and how they would do it," the chief said.

HAWKINS ALSO acknowledged the need for better coordination. "There's more emphasis today on regionalization. One of the things that came out of the Pentagon experience and the follow-up report was that our regional cooperation was good, but it can be improved," he said.

"Fire departments throughout the region are going to be applying for state money to strengthen our regional cooperation capabilities," Hawkins noted. "There's a lot of potential money floating around out there. But, so far, none of it is from the state. It's all local and federal."

Alexandria has increased its training for bioterrorism. "Part of the federal training money is being spent to send people to training sessions specifically geared to bioterrorism. We are also analyzing other threats, such as dirty bombs," Hawkins said.

Complementing their internal preparedness, Fairfax County's department has been holding a series of community meetings to bring citizens into the awareness process. "We want citizens to make sure they know their environment. They need to be alert to anything that doesn't seem right. We would rather they err on the side of caution than otherwise," Stinnette said.

Hawkins conceded, "There is a realization out there that something else is going to happen. We want to be ready for whatever it is," he said.