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County Officials Prepare for Terrorist Attack, Bird Flu

Office of Emergency Management outlines county response to “dirty bomb” attack.

Though Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management has coordinated plans to respond to a natural disaster, nuclear terrorist attack or hazardous chemical spill, a bird flu pandemic could cripple county resources, government officials said.

In the wake of a devastating natural disaster or terrorist attack, county officials would be assisted by regional, state and federal first responders. But Arlington emergency responders would have to depend on their own limited means during a regional pandemic, county officials told more than 40 people at an emergency planning forum last Thursday in the County Board room.

The greatest concern would be the reduction of the county government’s work force. If much of the staff fell ill the county would have difficulties facilitating a quarantine and maintaining law and order.

“If police officers and fire fighters are getting sick we could see a potential breakdown in all societal aspects,” said Bob Griffin, director of Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM).

OEM is working with county public health officials to formulate a plan to distribute vaccine and medical supplies.

Most incidents that could affect Arlington would not require a mass evacuation of the population, officials said, citing the improbability of an earthquake, flood or tsunami. The county does not possess specific evacuation plans because each disaster or terrorist scenario is different and government officials want to retain a high degree of flexibility to adapt to any situation, said Capt. Thomas Panther, an OEM deputy coordinator.

The county has been preparing for the possibility of a “dirty bomb” or nuclear terrorist attack in Washington, officials said.

“It is very much on our minds,” Griffin said. “This is a more realistic scenario than a category five hurricane striking Arlington.”

After a nuclear or large-scale chemical attack, OEM and the federal government would monitor plumes of dangerous substances to gauge where they were headed. But it would take time to ascertain what danger such an attack posed to the population and whether or not the entire county would have to evacuate.

“There will be periods of chaos while we are figuring out what it is and what other things are happening,” Griffin said.

If individuals are not in the direct path of a chemical plume then it is best for them to remain indoors, shut off the air conditioning and seal all entrances, Griffin said. If their homes are breached then people should evacuate.

IN THE CASE OF such an attack the county manager would declare a state of emergency, which would have to be approved by the county board, Griffin said. Then the county manager would contact Virginia officials in order to utilize state resources, mobilize the national guard and overturn purchasing restrictions.

If the magnitude of the disaster was beyond the capacity of the state, a request would be made to the president for federal resources. Under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, Virginia could solicit direct aid from other states.

The county would utilize vehicles with loud speakers and a direct-call phone system to alert residents of an emergency. Information would also be disseminated via the county Web site, an emergency Web site — www.arlingtonalert.com, cable channel 74 and the county hotline. Officials have made preparations to distribute critical information in Spanish.

“Controlling fear and putting correct information out there is a key component of how we deal with emergencies,” Griffin said.

The county has designated six facilities — four schools and two community centers — as shelters with overnight capacity. In the aftermath of Hurricane Isabelle, Thomas Jefferson Middle School was used as a temporary safe haven.

The Red Cross has agreed to supply housing for up to 50 residents at local hotels, and nine county schools can serve as short-term shelters and resource centers. All schools are equipped with generators and a small stockpile of food.

It is imperative that residents have their own set of emergency supplies, officials said, including water, food, a first aid kit, flashlight, batteries and medicine. People should have enough goods in their house to survive three to five days.

“What we learned from Katrina is everyone needs to be responsible for themselves,” said Marry Ellen McKenzie, a public health nurse who works with OEM. “Everyone needs a unique personal preparedness plan.”

Arlington public schools have been holding regular “lockdown” drills and emergency preparedness assemblies so students know how to respond in a crisis situation, said Meg Tuccillo, assistant superintendent for administrative services.

The best thing Arlington residents can do is ensure they have the necessary supplies in their home and know the easiest evacuation route.

“Have a plan, be informed and stay in place unless you are directly affected,” Panther told the crowd.