Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Are our emergency responders prepared for a mega-catastrophe?

At the scale of, say, a cyber-attack that shuts the entire grid during, worse, a harsh weather event?

So asked clean energy activist Scott Sklar this January, addressing Arlington’s top three leaders in emergency response.

Their replies to Committee of 100 banqueters were as reassuring as one could expect in a no-win scenario. And they’re entitled to bragging rights about what makes Arlington’s counter-terrorism strategies special.

“In the last 20 years, things have changed dramatically,” said Police Chief Jay Farr, citing datelines from terrorism horrors in Nairobi, Boston, Paris, Mumbai, and San Bernadino. “Police used to carry a handgun, a briefcase and a radio,” he said. “Today they have a full set of protective riot gear and ballistic vests, and what we expect is not remotely the same.”

The game-changer was the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, he said. “The police no longer stay outside the perimeter and wait,” and officers train “to be tactically sound to respond” faster. The 2002 area sniper attacks were more stressful than 9/11, Farr said, because no one knew the source of the threat. Last year, with a new tactical training unit, Arlington police devoted 57,000 hours to training because for the first 30 minutes after an incident, police and fire are the only ones at a scene.

Another evolution is “relationship building,’ said Deputy Fire Chief Doug Insley. Twenty-five years ago, police and fire professionals barely spoke, he said. Now, “from boots on the ground to the command level, we have amplified the way we respond with cross sharing and unified command. Across the country, there are places where it’s territorial, but Arlington is not,” Insley said. “We get support from political leaders and work together. We lead the region and country in a lot of areas.” He cited no-notice drills his office conducts with counterparts in Fairfax, Falls Church and Alexandria.

Equally impactful are social media and instant communication that allows the “Arlington Alerts” and other messaging to maximize input from citizens along lines of “if you see something, say something,” said Jack Brown, director of the Office of Emergency Management, which runs the 24/7 Emergency Operations Center. “Preaching this whole doom-and-gloom thing doesn’t work, it’s all about engagement.”

The best counter-terrorism tool is “community policing, eyes and ears in the room,” Farr added. That provides “good solid intelligence at the front end, but the community must trust the police,” he said. “Do not hesitate to call us about something suspicious. Some say, ‘I didn’t want to bother you,’ but I say, `Bother us,’” he added. Ninety-nine percent of calls end up as nothing, but that “1 percent could change the course of events.”

Brown agreed. “Don’t hang up” if harried 9/11 operators delay, he said. They’ll get to you.

Yes, Arlington planners have envisioned the mega-catastrophe, Brown said, adding the possibility of an outage caused by a solar storm. “We train to power down for months or years,” he said, mentioning a tabletop exercise for an East Coast outage enduring 30 days. He recommended residents keep enough supplies of food of water for two weeks.

Firehouses have back-up generators, added Insley. The police, said Farr, though increasingly high-tech in crime data analytics of crime and mass license plate reading, are prepared “to revert to pen and paper.”

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Obituaries last week for the civil rights attorney and former Transportation Secretary William Coleman neglected his key role in Arlington history.

Coleman, who died March 31 at age 90, was the African-American Cabinet member during the Ford administration who made the final decision in January 1977 to approve construction of I-66.

That came after decades of debate and resistance from environmentalists to an original plan that envisioned an eight-lane swath through our county. Coleman approved the highway but narrowed the design to four lanes—a width that politicians have since made obsolete.