Planning for Disaster: Fairfax County Publishes Emergency Response Guide

Planning for Disaster: Fairfax County Publishes Emergency Response Guide

The calm before the storm. Staff from the county’s Office of Emergency Management “at work” in the Office of Emergency Management’s Alternate Emergency Operation Center, giving insight into the department’s operations before a state-wide tornado drill.

The calm before the storm. Staff from the county’s Office of Emergency Management “at work” in the Office of Emergency Management’s Alternate Emergency Operation Center, giving insight into the department’s operations before a state-wide tornado drill. Photo by Andrea Worker.


Fairfax County Office of Emergency Management director Seamus Mooney talks about the new Community Emergency Response Guide. Board chair Sharon Bulova and Braddock District Supervisor John Cook also spoke at the launch.

High winds are tearing through Fairfax County. Maybe a tornado? There is structural damage to a number of local businesses. Power lines are down, so there are outages being reported. No lights, so traffic is snarled at several major intersections, and some of those downed lines sparked a fire along a heavily-travelled “back road” in the area with the danger of trees falling, as well. The sudden, lashing rain will probably help extinguish the fires, but the overflowing stream on your route has blocked your way home with dangerous flood waters and debris. Is that other road similarly affected? How will you know before you try it?

It’s almost four o’clock in the afternoon. Did your kids get home safely? What about your spouse? Will he or she be able to find a way home, and soon? You keep trying to call them all, but the cell phone system is overwhelmed. And what about your parents? They live in an area prone to flooding with lots of old trees that may not stand up to this onslaught from Mother Nature. Your mom just had knee surgery. She can’t get around too well. Will anyone in her neighborhood check on them and help out if need be?

ALL OF THE ABOVE may sound like the plot line from a disaster movie, but Fairfax County government and emergency management personnel know that one emergency event can easily trigger another, and another, and within minutes that fictitious script can become reality with chaotic, and potentially deadly, consequences.

They want you to be prepared to help yourself and help others by asking yourself “what if?” instead of “now what?” and planning ahead for those often unexpected moments of danger.

It was no accident that county officials chose Tuesday, March 19 — the same day that the Commonwealth was conducting a state-wide tornado drill — to launch CERG, the Fairfax County Community Emergency Response Guide.

Tornadoes are one of the deadliest and most damaging of natural disasters. They can be the trigger for more causes for concern — and they are one of 14 natural and human-caused hazard scenarios, and three “everyday” emergencies, covered in the CERG.

From extreme weather incidents like tornadoes, hurricanes or tropical storms, to man-made actions including cyber attacks, acts of terrorism and danger from chemical, biological or other agents, to structural fires, power outages and medical emergencies, there are practical steps to take to mitigate many of these events, and important actions to take during and after the crisis. The CERG outlines them all and offers additional resources to help citizens prepare and produce the best possible outcomes for themselves, their families and their neighbors.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova opened the session to launch the guide. She was followed by Braddock District Supervisor John Cook, who also chairs the board’s Public Safety committee.

“We’re proud that Fairfax County is once again taking a leadership role,” said Cook. “We are only the second county in the nation to put together such a comprehensive and accessible resource for our citizens.”

One of the key reasons for their efforts to provide the information was the need for everyone to do their part in working for the safety and wellbeing of the community, Cook said.

The Office of Emergency Management coordinates all hazard mitigation, response and disaster recovery for the residents of Fairfax County. Depending on the severity and the scope of the situation, Cook noted that local emergency services could be stretched to their limits.

In the event of a major disaster, residents may have to act as their “own first responders” and the guide discusses how to be ready to do just that for the first three to five days of a large-scale event.

While not suggesting that private citizens would, or should, assume the major duties of rescue and other responders, Cook, and Seamus Mooney, the OEM’s director, both offered that lives could be saved and the impact of any such catastrophe be reduced if residents prepare and plan for themselves, and look out for others around them.

“The call to 9-1-1 is still the first order of business,” said Mooney, but, again, if the event is severe and/or wide-spread throughout the region, those emergency personnel will be handling hundreds – if not thousands – of calls and prioritizing individual needs and the actions required to bring the situation under control.

The county has a comprehensive plan for response to these and other emergency scenarios and they are highlighted in the CERG, but, more importantly, the guide offers practical before, during, and after advice and resources for our citizenry. It all starts with “Make a Plan.”

THE GUIDE discusses the planning assumptions residents have to make. That could mean dealing with no water, no power, limited communications and possibly no access to retail, including pharmacies, no gasoline, and possibly no ATMs for cash or even the ability to use a credit card.

The CERG provides a basic checklist to help develop your plan for yourself, your family, your neighbors, your pets and even your business, if you are a business-owner.

Step 2 in the preparation stage is to “Practice Your Plan” since a plan is only useful if everyone knows it and can execute it quickly during a stress-filled situation.

The final ingredient to the planning stage is to assemble and maintain an Emergency Kit – and again, the CERG is your guide to knowing just what to include and how to safeguard lives and protect important items and documents. All this valuable information is covered in the first 20 or so pages of the more than 120-page reference book.

Next comes the “what to do’s” of response — the “during phase” — covering evacuation strategies, lock-downs and sheltering-in-place as safely as possible.

Resources for the recovery phase are next, from physical clean-ups to how to apply for assistance from local and federal agencies.

Before getting into the specifics of the different emergency scenarios, the CERG offers practical tips on how to mitigate the effects of flooding, fire, and high winds and what you can do to promote a continuity of utility services. There are also mitigation recommendations for shoring-up financial resilience and preparing to make insurance claims to lessen that pain and possibly shorten the wait for benefits.

After the “cheat sheets” for the different types of emergency, the CERG offers more resources, more checklists and templates to make the process as simple as possible, and encourage its use.

Mooney urges residents to sign up for Fairfax Alerts at For residents with physical, sensory, mental health and cognitive and/or intellectual disabilities, as well as women in late-stage pregnancy and seniors, Mooney strongly recommends that they register with the Fairfax County Functional Needs Registry.

The registry is an opt-in list of names, addresses and needs that the county uses to deliver targeted emergency alerts and updates in the event of an emergency.

“With information like this, if permitted, we can train communities to make connections,” Cook said. “We can help connect neighbors like these with each other and help create a plan to assist.” Sometimes, the call to duty can be as simple as just checking in on the neighbor during an emergency to be sure they are informed and not in any immediate need or danger.

There is a lot of information in the CERG, but “it can be consumable in pieces as most relevant to you,” said Mooney, and as Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross noted, there is a “cliff notes” version of the guide available for review at each district supervisor’s office.

Volunteer corps, under the direction of Mooney and the OEM staff, are “trained to train” others on emergency preparation and planning and are available for outreach to homeowners’ associations, civic groups or faith-based communities, businesses and others.

After the press conference, Mooney invited the media to join in the tornado drill at the OEM’s Alternate Emergency Operation Center, located inside the government center.

Staff demonstrated a typical day, monitoring events and potential emergencies from the secondary command post, then followed protocol when the tornado “warning” notice was heard, advising all to shelter-in-place. Into the most interior room with less equipment and items that could become deadly projectiles when directed by tornado-force wind marched the OEM staff – and straight under desks for added protection.

“Everyone should have a plan. Everyone should practice,” was Mooney’s final recommendation — even those who plan and prepare for and respond to emergencies every single day.

The Fairfax County Community Emergency Response Guide can be downloaded from the county’s website and will be available for review in public libraries and governmental district offices.