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Talking the Talk Together

National Capital Region tests its emergency preparedness

<bt>Less than 24 hours after the fifth anniversary 9-11, nearly 170 local, state and federal first responders gathered at Robinson Terminal dock in Alexandria to test the National Capital Region's Interoperability Communications System under the scrutiny of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Congressional staff.

Although NCR's interoperable radio system existed prior to the attacks of 9-11, more than $34 million in federal homeland security grants from the Urban Area Security Initiative have been expended since then to improve that vital lifeline. Tuesday morning's inter-jurisdictional exercise was to evaluate its overall effectiveness.

Participants included firefighters, police officers and other emergency response and investigative personnel from Alexandria City; the counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Prince George's, Loudoun, Prince William, and Montgomery; Virginia and Maryland State Police; Virginia and Maryland departments of transportation; District of Columbia; U.S. Coast Guard, FBI and ATF.

"The object of this exercise today is to prove that every jurisdiction that gets money from Homeland Security has a system in place that works and works among all the participants," said Brian Hannigan, communications director, Alexandria.

Based on a series of theoretical incidents that involved domestic terrorism, a sniper attack in Frederick County, hot pursuit of a sniper suspect by a police cruiser, a car crash as a result of that pursuit over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, and a tanker-truck crash requiring response by interjurisdictional hazardous materials teams. There were also water incidents that brought into play the Marine Operations teams of the District of Columbia, Alexandria and the Metropolitan Police Department.

The most vital element of the 90-minute exercise was testing the inter-operability of communications between all the various participants. This has proven to be one of the most critical items in a disaster situation, whether that be a natural event, such as a hurricane, or man made, such as the Pentagon attack in 2001.

"We did not have this capability at the time of the Air Florida crash in 1982. We did have it on 9-11 but we have been improving it since," said Lt. Wes Rogers, Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department. "We can talk to one another now. Every department has an 800 megahertz frequency."

According to Homeland Security's SAFECOM program report of 2002, the response to the Pentagon attack demonstrated the "success of the region's interoperability radio systems." That report noted, "Most first responders could communicate directly and immediately with Arlington County because of preexisting mutual aid agreements and shared radio systems."

As Tuesday's staged incident progressed, operations were turned over to law enforcement to conduct the investigative phase. "This element of the operation tests how well law enforcement and fire department personnel work together and how well we communicate with one another in a multi-jurisdictional operation," said Russell Middleton, deputy chief, Fire Operations, Alexandria Fire Department.

"This is also testing the operations of a unified command. The larger the incident the more you need a unified command," Middleton said.

At the conclusion of the exercise, overall incident commander, Capt. Hasan Aden, Alexandria Police Department, said, "I was confident that the National Capital Region had extensive interoperational choices and equipment plus the professional personnel to make this exercise succeed. It has actually exceeded my expectations."

Inter-operability Communications Plans are mandated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. More than 70 urban areas nationwide had to submit their plans this year followed by similar exercises, according to a joint operations press release.