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Ready for the Worst

Council hears emergency plan at Tuesday meeting.

The destruction of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and now Wilma have prompted a close look at Fairfax's own emergency plan. At the Fairfax City Council meeting Tuesday, Oct. 25, City of Fairfax Fire Department chief Tom Owens and City of Fairfax Police Department chief Rick Rappoport presented an outline of the city’s emergency response process to the council and community leaders.

"When we get into a situation like this, we like to say that every city staff member is an emergency responder," said Owens.

The federal government requires states to have a statewide emergency plan, and states demand localities have a local plan, said Owens. The City of Fairfax must work closely with the surrounding region, he said.

According to Owens, local governments are the ones that must start the emergency process. Luckily, the City of Fairfax has a good relationship with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM), he said.

"A lot of times, when the chips are down it is the fact that those relationships are there and are exercised that makes a difference," said Owens.

Owens and Rappoport outlined the steps the city would take in the event of a disaster or emergency, using its response to Hurricane Isabel as a model.

With a storm like Isabel, the city would begin monitoring the forecast days ahead of time, and try to determine the storm's impact. The city manager and department heads would meet, plan a response and begin preparing and staffing the Disaster Operation Center (DOC).

When the disaster occurs, personnel from the Fire, Police, Public Works, Utilities and Parks & Recreation departments would all begin helping citizens and taking care of essential services such as electricity and water.

The city would coordinate emergency shelters with Fairfax County, said Owens, sending people to Oakton High School, for example. The public would have a couple methods available to receive information about emergency procedures, said Owens. Currently, the city has access to George Mason University's AM radio station and would send out information that way; also, the city has a new electronic Message Alert System (eMAS), where residents and businesses can sign up to have emergency information sent to a phone, pager or e-mail.

The city’s emergency management team found many improvements to consider after Isabel, Owens said. The DOC, city officials found, was far too small. But a new center, part of the new police services building, is under construction right now, he said. Traffic signals, many of which did not have backup generators during Isabel, are now wired to emergency generator power, as is the Information Technology center.

THE GREATEST weakness at this point in terms of regional planning is how to move people, said Owens. In the event of a biological disaster, this would be difficult, he said, especially in an area where so many people work as well as live.

"This is one of the processes being looked at on a regional level," he said. "I think that is the only way we can plan for that."

Councilmembers were wary about the level to which the emergency plan depended on Fairfax County. The City of Fairfax, with its level of independence, should not get too dependent on a county with over a million residents, said Councilmember Scott Silverthorne.

"The thing I have trouble with is depending on others to take care of our own people," he said. The plan to evacuate to Oakton High School makes little sense when Fairfax High School is right here, he said.

Mayor Rob Lederer agreed. "I think if we said to the community, 'Go to Oakton High School,' it would not be well received,'" he said.

Owens said that Fairfax would be difficult to use as an emergency shelter because of its extensive renovations, but city emergency officials are talking to the newly expanded Paul VI High School about using their facilities, he said.

Community residents and councilmembers also wondered about how well city emergency management is prepared to help the most vulnerable members of the community.

EMAS messages must be available in languages other than English to adequately reach all community members, said Darlene Moran, president of the Fairview Civic Association.

The city must also take special care when dealing with elderly and disabled citizens. "There are probably a lot of folks my age or older who are not hooked up to eMAS or other modern systems and those are the most vulnerable," said Walt Wagner, president of the Fairfax Oaks Homeowners Association.

The AM radio station, which is accessible to a wider range of people, should be bilingual, said Lederer.

FOR A LOCALITY to be at its best in case of an emergency, preparedness must start at the family level, said Owens.

"I can't over-stress this enough," he said. "This is not just something that emergency preparedness people talk about, this is a real period of time."

Councilmembers also pushed for more public awareness about emergency preparation, such as the eMAS and AM radio station as well as items in the city’s newsletter, Cityscene. Not many people are signed up to use the eMAS text-messaging service, said Councilmember Gary Rasmussen. He suggested handing out eMAS information at social events.

Citizens must always stay on their toes, said Councilmember Patrice Winter. "It is human nature to become complacent when things are easy," she said.

The council also discussed a set of concerns brought by town businesses in Old Town Fairfax, who are concerned about a drop-off in business during and after the redevelopment project, said Lederer, and suggested several measures to bring back to the business owners at a special meeting Tuesday, Nov. 1.

A number of road improvements in Old Town Fairfax, delayed because of the two-way switch, are now back on track because the switch has been delayed, he said. The city will also advertise to remind residents and visitors that the downtown area is still open for business, even during construction.

"We clearly need to invest in the businesses that have invested in the city for so many years," said Lederer.