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Town Meeting Highlights Public Safety

Lee District supervisor hosts citizens.

Public Safety is a subject that touches everyone. Its importance has been elevated significantly since 9/11. It was also the primary topic for those assembled at Lane Elementary School last Saturday morning.

That was the site of Lee District supervisor Dana Kauffman's (D) annual Town Meeting. And, public safety was framed in the "Post 9-11 Roles for Our Professionals and Our Community."

Fairfax County executive Anthony Griffin explained the expanded regional jurisdictional coordination that has developed since the attacks on New York and the Pentagon. "We are trying to anticipate other things that could occur and be prepared for them," he explained.

"Developing a regional communications system is very critical because there may be various incidents occurring simultaneously," Griffin warned. As an example he referred to the winter day in 1982 when Air Florida crashed into the 14th Street bridge on take-off from Reagan National Airport.

"At the same time there was a train/car crash in a tunnel and we were in the midst of a blizzard," Griffin reminded the audience. "Since then we have developed a Regional Communications System, and it is not just for executive personnel."

Griffin said, "All transportation officials, emergency personnel and hospitals are now linked. This was particularly useful during the anthrax scare after 9/11."

He acknowledged that the Washington area has been successful "in getting a representative of the new Department of Homeland Security to be specifically assigned to this area. This was appropriate because of all the potential targets here."

GRANTS TOTALING $60 million have been earmarked for this region, according to Griffin. "These grants are being divided up by critical needs in the various jurisdictions," he said .

But Griffin also acknowledged, "What we don't have is a way to integrate information generated throughout the various jurisdictions. Vast numbers of people are traversing the various jurisdictions on a daily basis.

"This makes integration critical. More and more, we are taking a regional approach to problems to better serve our citizens."

In introducing Fairfax County police chief Thomas Manger, Kauffman pointed out, "Fairfax County has the lowest crime rate in the Washington metropolitan area. And this is accomplished with the least number of police officers per 1,000 population."

Manger said, "Since 9/11, we have taken on a terrorism fighting role. This has put an additional burden on us because we can't say we aren't going to investigate other crimes such as bank robberies, like the FBI can. We have to do all our regular work as well."

As for the various alerts intermittently triggered by Homeland Security, Manger questioned their value by asserting, "I've said OK. But what is it we're supposed to be alert to?"

He added, "We have increased our intelligence capabilities. We are trying to talk to people in various industries to convince them to report suspicious activities."

THE ONE CRIME area where Manager noted a marked increase was in hate crimes. "They increased dramatically after 9/11, and they have not gone down. We recently saw one of the worst when the woman was stabbed in Springfield Mall," he said.

Two primary crime categories Manger singled out were gangs, and identity theft. In 1997, Fairfax County police established a 10- member gang investigative unit, according to Manger.

"Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in Fairfax County," Manger warned. "Our white-collar crime unit is inundated with identity theft cases. We are getting over 1,000 cases per year in this category."

Manger explained that one of the primary reasons for this increase is that it is a prime area for terrorists. "Terrorists are basically criminals. They are involved in criminal activities — particularly identity theft," he said.

Buttressing both Griffin's and Manger's emphases on interagency/interjurisdictional cooperation was Chief Michael Neuhard, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.

"Emergencies are no longer single-agency events in the post 9/11 world," he said.

"In the '50s and '60s, what we did with civil defense planning was emphasize that communities had to be prepared. We are right back there today," Neuhard said.

He also emphasized that disasters are not limited to terrorist events, citing the recent hardship wrought by Hurricane Isabel. "We are looking at increasing our preparedness in general. We responded to more than 87,000 calls of all sorts last year. There were 978 calls on Sept. 18 alone, when Isabel hit," Neuhard said.

"Since 9/11, we see ourselves as an all-response department. We have to be alert not only to the primary threat but threats to the responding personnel as well. Secondary devices are now planted to attack the first responders. This is new," Neuhard insisted.

"Generally, we have traditionally planned for day-to-day emergencies. Now, we also must plan for special emergencies," he said.

KAUFFMAN REMINDED the audience, "We have used our training money to develop a highly professional fire department. We do not want our first responders to become first victims."

In addition to Griffin, Manger and Neuhard, the citizenry heard from Mount Vernon District supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D) and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman Katherine Hanley (D). Hyland praised Kauffman for his leadership in spurring redevelopment throughout the county.

"Dana was the first to raise the question about redevelopment not only in housing but in all aspects. If you have seen a difference on Route 1, you can thank your supervisor," Hyland reminded Kauffman's constituents. "I think you have chosen the best person possible to serve as your supervisor."

Hyland also appealed for support in the fight to save Mount Vernon Hospital. "We have our hands full to make sure Inova [Inova Health System, IHS] doesn't do anything to take the heart out of the Mount Vernon/Lee districts," he said. "And, make your feelings known to the Board of Supervisors."

During the question-and-answer portion of the program, this plea brought forth a suggestion that the county should replace IHS with a new health system and urged that no county money be used to fund a new hospital in the Lorton area. Hanley pointed out that no county money was involved except in the present lease agreement which provides IHS with a $10 per year lease fee for both Inova Mount Vernon and Fairfax hospitals.

ADDRESSING THE increasing real-estate tax question, Hanley noted, "In the last two years, we lost $40 million in investment income due to dropping interest rates. While the real-estate tax is the dominant source of income, it is not the only source."

She attributed the county's fiscal problems to the fact that "we can't raise other income sources because we are a county and not a city. We try to keep commercial income in balance with residential, but it has fallen dramatically with the burst of the technology bubble."

One of the first citizens to come to the microphone during the question-and-answer session queried Hanley as to why she had not been more visible during Hurricane Isabel, such as Doug Duncan in Montgomery County and Mayor Tony Williams in the District of Columbia.

"We are at the mercy of the press and what they decide to cover with their cameras," she explained. "I was on radio, just not on TV. This is one of the challenges in getting information out to the public in situations like that. We are dependent on the media and what they consider important."

Griffin was asked, "How prepared are we if we can lose all the water plants at once?" During Hurricane Isabel, power was lost to all water treatment plants, causing them to shut down.

"It was totally unexpected to lose all four plants. The reason the water company had not invested in generating capacity is because the plants are so large no single generator is large enough to supply the power. One plant would take six generators and another four in order to have them operate in sequence," Griffin explained.

"However, this is now being reconsidered. But it might take an investment of up to $50 million. This could require an estimated 14-percent rate increase," he warned.

Griffin stated the new plant under construction in Lorton will replace three plants now on the Occoquan River. He also admitted, "The boil-water alert was precautionary. There never was a threat to the purification."

IN ANSWERING two questions pertaining to roads, Kauffman acknowledged that both the county and Fort Belvoir will be considering options to replace the closed Woodlawn Road. "The county's Technical Committee will be looking at options during a Nov. 6 meeting," followed by the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 17, according to the supervisor.

Kauffman also said, "We are working with VDOT to get adequate pedestrian considerations" as a part of the Telegraph Road Interchange portion of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project. But, he concluded, "You can plan anything you want. You just can't control the pace."