Capital region to link security

Va., Md., D.C. leaders sign pact to coordinate efforts

Agreement seen as model

Improving data sharing, utilities defense top goals

August 06, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The governors of Maryland and Virginia and the mayor of the District of Columbia signed a first-ever regional homeland security pact yesterday, a document that federal authorities say could become a model for other major metropolitan areas seeking to tighten their emergency response strategies.

The signing of the "Commitments to Action" was the culmination of the National Capital Region Summit on Homeland Security, convened by federal Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge for local officials at Washington's Fort McNair.

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner and district Mayor Anthony A. Williams, speaking at the event, were quick to point out the anti-terrorism strides the region has made since Sept. 11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks. But they also said the terrorist threat required a new commitment to working together.

"The nature of the threat is beyond anything that we had conceived of earlier; therefore, what we must do is not only reaffirm our commitment but understand the new direction and magnitude of this," Glendening said. "It's important for us to constantly pause and say, `What worked and what did not work on Sept. 11?'"

The pact came without one seemingly central element: Ridge's signature. Some local leaders complained that without the Bush administration signing on to the accord, they would lack the authority to enforce their new anti-terror initiatives.

"It's very frustrating," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, one of the more than 125 public and private sector officials at the summit. "Basically, they're not committing to anything we're saying here today."

Local officials said they were told that Ridge cannot speak for federal agencies, such as the FBI and CIA, that are involved in homeland defense. Ridge said his job is to coordinate the implementation of the pact, and he asserted that the administration stands behind the sweeping regional defense effort.

"I wouldn't read anything into the presence or absence of signatures," he said. "There's a huge commitment."

Summit participants pointed to vulnerabilities in the region's security posture that have yet to be addressed: For instance, emergency officials have never performed a drill to test a coordinated response to a major attack. And authorities have not fixed the problems that led to huge cellular phone failures Sept. 11 - or updated old phone lists that some officials used to no avail that day.

Moreover, participants said, if the capital were attacked, not all officials would know where to find information about the best evacuation routes. On Sept. 11, the city was thrown into gridlock as tens of thousands of federal workers tried to flee at the same time.

Main goals of pact

The pact includes eight points, most of which are aimed at improving information-sharing in the region. The goal is to quickly answer questions such as who should evacuate and who should stay put during a "dirty bomb" radiological attack or who ought to receive medical care in a bioterror episode.

The document also attempts to better coordinate plans to protect phone lines, power plants and highways and seeks public-private partnerships to put those safeguards in place. The pact seeks to enable regional governments to help each other financially while addressing concerns about reimbursement and liability.

The agreement also calls for the FBI and the U.S. attorneys offices in the capital region to share more terror information with state and local police, an issue of longstanding sensitivity.

No other region has committed to fighting terrorism in such a coordinated way, in part because few other areas offer such a sprawling array of inviting targets.

"We are the stewards of the symbols of democracy, and that leaves us with an extra burden," said Warner, Virginia's governor. "This region must become a model for preparedness."

Now, eight working groups composed of Maryland, Virginia and district authorities will start meeting to put some flesh on the plan's bones.

Some work has begun. Maryland, Virginia and district officials, for instance, are starting to post what will be 1,400 road signs to funnel motorists into the suburbs in case of an emergency - as well as direct suburban rescue workers into the city if their help is needed downtown.

The Sept. 11 attacks highlighted the area's communication problems - not just across regional lines, but inside each jurisdiction.


On the day of the attacks, for example, Montgomery and Prince George's county officials intended to keep children in school so their parents would know they were in a safe place. But those authorities learned that Maryland officials had decided to close the schools only by listening to the radio.

Local officials said they were heartened by the broad security plans. But who, they wondered, would pay for these proposals?

David Harrington, mayor of Bladensburg, complained that on Sept. 11 the federal government's shutdown, and the subsequent evacuation of federal workers, created huge traffic jams in his suburban Maryland town - as well as big overtime bills for police and fire teams directing the onrush of commuter traffic.

"This caused some real hemorrhaging to our budgets," Harrington said. "Frankly, we just don't have the money."

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