Four years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in Washington and New York, and weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, D.C. officials are questioning whether the city is adequately prepared for emergencies or disasters.
Local leaders held a panel discussion downtown Thursday focusing on procedures already in place in case of an emergency and how businesses and institutions can better prepare themselves for one.
“There (are) always risks out there, and Washington, D.C., is certainly not immune to them,” said Edward Reiskin, deputy mayor for public safety and justice in the D.C. government, at the forum. “But I don’t think there is any reason to have to live in fear or be consumed with notions of terrorist acts.”
The session was the second in a series hosted by the Washington D.C. Marketing Center, a non-profit group that promotes economic development in the city. Reiskin told the crowd of about 95 business professionals that ensuring security in the nation’s capital is difficult but not impossible. The panel speakers emphasized that successful security can be achieved by common sense solutions.
“We really need to work and think as a region to prepare for emergencies,” Reiskin said.
Charlie Gleichenhaus, who has handled the International Monetary Fund’s security operations since 1999, said that when his facility began receiving multiple anthrax scares, an off-site mail screening system was established. Gleichenhaus said the cost of the new mail program is still less expensive than closing the IMF for one day in the event of an outbreak.
Educating local leaders about how to better prepare D.C. businesses and institutions for emergency situations will be beneficial to the city’s plan overall, Reiskin added.
“Any way in which we can engage the broader community … is a positive thing,” Reiskin said. “It’s certainly helpful to us to have venues and outlets through which we can engage and communicate.”
Mark Miller, emergency management coordinator for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, said a collaborative approach must be used to secure the nearly 1,000 Metro railcars, 100 rail stations and 10,000 bus stations in the area. Miller added that Metro works with D.C. Department of Transportation and D.C. Emergency Management Agency to prepare in the event of an emergency. The Metro system encompasses more than 1,500 square miles of territory, he said, making Metro facilities an obvious target of terrorists.
Like other D.C. institutions, GW has followed suit and established its own procedures in case of an emergency. Two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the University hired John Petrie to fill the new post of assistant vice president for public safety and emergency management. Petrie oversees a staff of seven emergency management associates and works closely with city and federal safety professionals.
Petrie, a former commanding officer for the naval station in Norfolk, Va., is responsible for coordinating contingency plans for GW in the event of an emergency. He said that GW’s close proximity to high-profile governmental buildings helps with protection, but does not eliminate potential threats.
“We have all of the intelligence agencies … and 17 law enforcement agencies being sure that this piece of geography (the GW campus) is the safest geography on the planet,” Petrie said. “That’s not a guarantee that something cannot happen, especially in the broad scope of emergencies.”
Shortly after becoming GW’s emergency preparedness czar, Petrie created a 22-page plan that outlines what GW would do in a disaster.
Recognizing the need to inform the community about this plan, Petrie said he and his team have mounted an aggressive campaign to share emergency information. Petrie said the Emergency Management Department has attended residence hall meetings, spoken at Colonial Inauguration sessions and put advertisements in GW publications.
Both Petrie and Reiskin acknowledge that there are tangible threats to safety in D.C. and at GW but said that for the most part, students should not worry.
This article appeared in the September 19, 2005 issue of the Hatchet.