As the outer bands of Ernesto began to lash the county Friday morning with driving rain and fierce winds, Bob Griffin, head of Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management, was preparing for the worst.
Griffin and his deputies spent all morning tracking the storm on a series of computers and eight large, flat-screen televisions in the "watch desk" section of their offices in Courthouse.
As the hours passed, it appeared that Arlington would be spared the full brunt of the storm. But just in case, Griffin worked the phones, speaking with the heads of more than half-a-dozen county agencies to make sure they had personnel
In between, he prepared for a conference call with emergency officials from across the region to gauge how other jurisdictions were bracing for potential flooding.
If the county’s streams over-flowed, as they did during torrential storms in late June, and roads and basements became deluged with water, he was prepared to summon up to 25 police, fire, parks and government staff to his state-of-the-art emergency operations center to help coordinate the county’s response.
"Five years ago, all of this didn’t exist," Griffin said, sitting in the operations center, a compact room with more than a dozen computers and television screens and numerous phones. "We had no watch desk, no public alert system and no office of emergency management."
In the five years since American Airlines Flight 77 was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon, as part of the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history, emergency preparedness has become one of the county’s top priorities.
Arlington has overhauled its response strategy, establishing an independent Office of Emergency Management and creating new emergency plans. It has upgraded its public communication system, and will launch a new radio station later this month to provide Arlington residents with specific information in the event of a natural disaster or another terrorist attack.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, county officials have placed even greater emphasis on training residents for how best to prepare for an emergency situation.
"The county learned a lot of lessons from Sept. 11," Griffin said. "We’ve taken
them to heart and done a lot the past five years."
ON THE MORNING of Sept. 10, 2001, Mark Penn took over as Arlington’s deputy
coordinator of emergency services. Penn was the county’s only emergency
management official, and the job comprised half of his responsibilities; the
other half of his time was devoted to hazardous materials issues.
For a jurisdiction of Arlington’s size, having a one-person emergency staff was
the norm, Penn said.
The county had run test drills at the Pentagon before, and the fire department
had been training to respond to a terrorist attack since the Oklahoma City
bombings five years prior. But the county government, like its peers across the
nation, was unprepared for a terrorist attack along the lines of Sept. 11.
"Based on the current risks, we had an appropriate number [of emergency staff]
for pre- 9/11," said Penn, who is now Alexandria’s emergency coordinator.
"Should it have been more in retrospect? Well, yeah."
Arlington fire fighters have received numerous accolades for their tireless
heroism that day, and their quick response is thought to be directly responsible
for saving countless lives in the Pentagon.
"The successful response to the terrorist attack on the Pentagon can be
attributed to the efforts of ordinary men and women performing in extraordinary
fashion," concluded an after-action report on the county’s performance on Sept.
The report lauded the degree to which departments from various jurisdictions
banded together that fateful day. One of the most enduring images of Sept. 11,
is the manner in which emergency responders from all over the region descended
upon the Pentagon to help in the recovery and rescue efforts, fire officials
But in the weeks and months after the attack, Arlington fire and emergency
officials came to the conclusion that the county needed to overhaul the way it
In July 2003, the county built an emergency operations center, and the following
year the emergency management office, with staff from the police, fire and
sheriff departments, came online.
"We become the brain hub for the county government when a disaster strikes,"
The county is currently upgrading its 911 call center, and dispatchers will soon
move into a new $31 million facility.
To give the emergency management team a set of ears and eyes on the ground, the
county has purchased three mobile command units. These vehicles possess
surveillance equipment and satellite capabilities, as well as numerous
computers, televisions and phones.
"To have a vehicle that brings this technology right to the site in an emergency
is impressive," said Rob Ritch, a senior network engineer for the county, as he
sat in one of the command vehicles last week. "It can act as a communication
center during a major incident."
WHILE THE EMERGENCY RESPONSE to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack was exemplary,
county and fire officials understood that they were unable to effectively
provide information to Arlington residents.
"We didn’t do such a good job of letting people know what was going on, and
didn’t realize what kind of info we should have been putting out," Schwartz
When Hurricane Isabelle knocked out power to much of the county in 2003, it was
a reminder that Arlington officials could not count on using television or the
Internet to pass on vital information to the public.
In response, the county created the Arlington Alert System, which when activated
sends messages via email, cell phone, pager and PDA in English and Spanish to
To reach homes across Arlington, the county upgraded its reverse 911 system. The
new system now can call more than 90,000 homes in less than a hour.
Later this month Arlington will launch its much-awaited radio station, on the
1700 AM frequency. During non-emergencies the station will broadcast weather and
traffic reports, and will be a key tool to direct residents in case of a natural
disaster or terrorist attack, officials said.
The most controversial part of the new public communication strategy is the
county’s desire to implement a siren system. A countywide network of electronic
sirens and speakers is the best way to alert the public of a hazardous chemical
spill or incoming tornado, said Jim Pebley, who chaired the county’s citizen-led
public emergency communications task group.
"People outdoors are the most vulnerable, yet have the least reliable
communications," Pebley said.
The county sought state money to build the siren network, but that effort was
vetoed by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Pebley said. The
reason was due to a "very strong technological prejudice" against the sirens
from people who fear they will resemble Cold War-era alert systems, he added.
The county eventually secured $400,000 in federal funding to set up a
three-siren pilot program early next year. One will be placed in a dense urban
center, one around mid-rise buildings near a Metro station and the third will be
situated in a park in a residential neighborhood, Griffin said.
If the sound travels well, and the system seems effective, county officials will
pursue more federal funds to build a full siren network.
ARLINGTON OFFICIALS HAVE prepared detailed plans for a response to a range of
emergencies, including biological terrorist attacks, hazardous chemical spills
and natural disasters.
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, Capt. Thomas Panther, formerly
an OEM deputy coordinator, said during an emergency preparedness meeting last
Emergency officials have established contingency plans in case of a nuclear or
large-scale chemical attack nearby. OEM and the federal government, with
assistance from the new mobile command vehicles, would monitor plumes of
dangerous substances to gauge where they were headed. They would then use the
various alert systems to tell residents whether they need to evacuate.
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.
Nine county schools can serve as short-term shelters and resource centers, and
all schools are equipped with generators and a small stockpile of food.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, county officials have emphasized that
emergency preparedness is also the responsibility of residents. In a large-scale
disaster, county resources would be stretched thin, and residents could be
called upon to help aid rescue efforts.
"The challenge is to get citizens to understand that government is not the
answer," Schwartz said. "In a catastrophic incident it’s going to be citizens
In response, the county has set up Community Emergency Response Teams to train
residents in disaster preparedness and rescue skills.
It is imperative that residents have their own set of emergency supplies,
officials said, including water, food, a first aid kit, flashlights, batteries
and medicine. People should have enough goods in their house to survive three to
Griffin fears that the constant calls to prepare may be falling on deaf ears in
"We have to push the message without sounding like Chicken Little," he said.
"But people are busy and don’t want to be reminded all the time."
Five years after Sept. 11, there has yet to be a successful terrorist attack on
American soil. Despite last month’s foiled plot to blow up airplanes traveling
from London to America, officials said they sense a lack of urgency among
"The danger here is that complacency can hurt us almost as bad as the
terrorists," Pebley said. "We are forgetting the lessons learned."