Virginia county scores well with DHS
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the ravaging destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and other events have forced many local governments to fix communication problems between emergency response agencies. According to a January report released by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that assessed 75 urban and metropolitan areas across the country, the Fairfax County, Va., region is a prime example of a community that is working together well. American City & County talked with Fairfax County Chairman Gerry Connolly about the challenges the region has overcome and the need for improvement among local government agencies.
Q: What has made Fairfax County’s public safety communications systemsuccessful?
A: This region first got into that issue in a big way in 1982 with the tragic crash of the Air Florida flight from National Airport into the Potomac River. We discovered that we were woefully inadequate as a region to talk to one another. That’s in part because we have two different states plus the city, plus the federal presence. Everyone had their own rules and their own systems. We’ve been working for the past 25 years to try and turn that around. We’ve made the investments to make sure that our communication system is functioning no matter the scenario.
Q: How did you begin addressing the issue?
A: Right after 9/11, the council of governments, of which I was chairman, called together all of the political, police, administrative, non-profit [and] private sector leadership of the region and said, “We have to have a plan — a regional plan for emergency preparedness.” That plan was the strategic document that guided the investments that were subsequently made, and communication [technology], obviously, was a very important part of that.
Q: What procedures has the county put in place to improve communications?
A: We pre-position a lot of communications gear [and] train our people on that gear. We do exercises and test our personnel constantly. We’ve also had real-life testing, [such as] the sniper incident in 2002. We had anthrax attacks right after the 9/11 attacks in the fall of . We had Hurricane Isabel in the fall of . So, this region has been tested in real life as well as virtually. We have created a culture of cooperation that has really paid off in this region, and the interoperability of communications is essential to that culture. Getting all of us together and agreeing on a plan is not easy.
We also can’t succeed without the cooperation of the federal government. On 9/11, the federal government unilaterally decided to grant early release to all federal workers. When you do that, those federal workers [do not go onto] federal trains and federal roads, they go onto local trains and local roads. So, the local governments in the region were overwhelmed. It showed both the importance of the federal presence in our region but also the lack of communication with local governments and state governments.
Q: What advice can you offer other local governments to improve interoperability?
A: Move beyond the lip service and make this a priority [and] make the investments that are going to be necessary so that this becomes a reality. This is something that you can do something about. We can’t control [what] terrorist scenarios might tragically unfold. But, we can do something about our own preparedness, and interoperable communication — in any scenario imaginable — is essential.