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Emergency Preparedness in the Nation's Capital

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Emergency Preparedness in the Nation's Capital

Statement from the Metropolitan Police Department

Charles H. Ramsey
Chief of Police
Metropolitan Police Department

Chief Charles H. Ramsey delivered the following statement to the United States House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, the Honorable Tom Davis, Chairman, on April 10, 2003.

Mister Chairman, Congresswoman Norton, other members of the Committee, staff, and guests – thank you for the opportunity to update you on the state of emergency preparedness in the District of Columbia from the perspective of local law enforcement.

Through the leadership and efforts of many people – including the President, the Congress, members of this Committee, Mayor Williams and his Administration, and, especially, our police officers – I feel very confident today in stating that law enforcement in our region is better prepared than ever before, for a large-scale emergency – whether that emergency be a terrorist attack, a natural disaster or something else. I base that assertion not on wishful thinking or over-optimistic reports from other people; I base it on my own personal involvement with the emergency preparedness process over the past 19 months. Law enforcement in our region recognizes that the stakes are very high. We understand and appreciate the need for cooperation, coordination and information-sharing. And most of all, we have pulled together as never before around a common goal and mission – securing the homeland by protecting our nation’s capital.

That is not to suggest that we have somehow completed our work in this area. We have not. The emergency preparedness and law enforcement arena continues to change very rapidly, and we in law enforcement need to remain vigilant and flexible in our response. But I am pleased that, even as conditions continue to change, we have built a solid foundation among the law enforcement community in the DC area – a foundation of trust, cooperation and partnership that will serve us well for years to come.

My testimony today will discuss law enforcement developments in five critical areas related to emergency preparedness in our region.

  • First is cooperation among various agencies and governments.

    As I said, I am very pleased with the depth of cooperation that exists among law enforcement in this region. I know that major city police chiefs in other parts of the country have, at times, expressed frustration with their relationships with their local FBI field offices and other federal agencies. But thanks to the leadership of Assistant Director in Charge Van Harp of the FBI Washington Field Office, as well as other federal officials in our region, our experience here in DC has been just the opposite. Here in our region, communication and cooperation are taking place at the executive level, at the senior manager level and at the operational level.

    The MPD is actively involved in both the Joint Terrorism Task Force and the Anti-Terrorism Task Force. Our Department’s Joint Operations Command Center continues to serve as a critical communications and operational hub connecting various federal and local agencies during periods of heightened alert or for major events such as the anti-war and anti-globalization protests expected this upcoming weekend. And I am in regular contact with Assistant Director Harp, and receive timely information and support from the WFO.

In addition to federal-local cooperation, our region continues to benefit from strong local-to-local coordination. For example, most of the region’s police chiefs and I hold regular conference calls – weekly, at a minimum; more often, if needed – to share intelligence and other information from our respective jurisdictions. Just recently, we expanded this concept to include other large-city police departments across the country. The MPD now hosts weekly conference calls among intelligence coordinators in six other cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit and Boston. I recently detailed one of our detectives to the New York Police Department’s anti-terrorism intelligence unit for a 90-day pilot project, to test the effectiveness of establishing this type of direct link with our law enforcement partners in New York. Finally, all of the chiefs in our region continue to work with the Greater Washington Council of Governments to ensure our individual plans are coordinated regionally, which is vitally important. The new homeland security coordinator for the Washington region will play a key role in the ongoing efforts to enhance law enforcement coordination in our region.

  • A second, and related, area involves the coordination between government and the private sector.

    With the war in Iraq and the resulting Orange Alert, the issue of private sector coordination has taken on added importance. For just as the private sector plays a major role in neighborhood crime prevention, the business community and others play an equally critical role in homeland security and emergency preparedness. The District’s Emergency Response Plan is our overall roadmap for preparing for and responding to any emergency. Part of the Plan’s strength, from a law enforcement perspective, is that it defines specific roles and responsibilities, and it recognizes the importance of the private sector in such vital areas as media and community outreach, transportation, and volunteer and donation management.

    The District’s Emergency Management Agency has been conducting a series of neighborhood-based community meetings on emergency preparedness. The MPD has actively participated in these meetings. In addition, our Department has reached out to the business community as a whole, as well as the hotel industry and higher education communities in particular, to provide them with specialized information on crisis planning for their facilities. And the Mayor’s Office, as well as the MPD and other agencies, are working with the local news media on how to get accurate and timely information out to the community during an emergency.

  • A third critical area involves our level of response preparedness.

    Over the past year-and-a-half, the MPD has made tremendous strides in our overall level of preparedness. This has been possible in large part because of the $16.8 million dollars in emergency preparedness funds awarded to our Department by Congress and the President. These funds have allowed us to provide basic (Level C) personal protection equipment to every sworn member of the Department – something that very few, if any, major city police departments have been able to provide. This equipment – including suit, gloves, boots and masks – permits our officers to operate in a “warm zone” for a period of time. In addition, our Department has equipped and trained 141 officers who are now part of our Special Threat Action Teams (STAT). These officers have been given the advanced equipment, training and vehicles for operating in an actual “hot zone.” And 26 of our specially trained Emergency Response Team officers are equipped to perform tactical operations within that “hot zone.” Our STAT officers also have the capability to set up and perform (or assist in) field decontamination efforts – a new responsibility for law enforcement and one for which the MPD is on the cutting edge.

    In terms of training, all sworn members of the Department have received a basic, eight-hour course in weapons of mass destruction, to help familiarize themselves with the possible scenarios they may face. Our STAT members have received more specialized training and have been certified in hazardous materials, radiological operations, and self-contained breathing apparatus. Later this year, these members will receive in-depth emergency medical technician training, as well as live agent training. In addition, all members of the MPD Command Staff – including myself – have been through not only the basic WMD course, but also an abbreviated hazardous materials course and we will soon participate in an abbreviated radiological hazard course as well. Training our executives and senior managers is critical if they are to be effective leaders in case of an emergency. And our members at all levels have participated, along with other agencies in the region, in various table-top exercises designed to test, in life-like scenarios, what we have trained in.

    In addition to preparing our own members, the MPD is assisting with other critical aspects of the District’s Emergency Response Plan. For example, our Department continues to work closely with the DC Department of Health in two key areas: developing protocols for the distribution of “push packs” to emergency response and health workers in the case of a chemical incident, and providing operational support for the activation of the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile plan. These are just two examples of the vital role that law enforcement plays in our overall emergency response plan.

  • Another area of major concern for people throughout the region is transportation and traffic management.

    While the District Department of Transportation is the lead agency on transportation planning in the District, the MPD continues to assist on a variety of implementation issues. For example, we have identified approximately 70 key intersections that the MPD is prepared to staff for traffic control purposes during an emergency. Most of these intersections are along the evacuation routes that DDOT has identified and marked.

    While our ability to move traffic safely during an emergency is better today than it was on September 11th, 2001, I think that all of us need to be realistic about what might happen in future events. As the recent incident in Constitution Gardens illustrated, if major arteries need to be closed when large numbers of motorists are trying to enter or exit the city at the same time, traffic is going to be backed up. That is why it is so important for people in our region to know not just what the evacuation routes are, but also how they should respond in case of an emergency. Our residents need to understand that the first thing to do in an emergency is to get more information, which is why our partnerships with the news media are so important.

    I understand that, should an event occur, most people’s instincts will tell them to get in their vehicles and try to leave the city. But depending upon the situation, traveling by car could actually put people at greater risk, especially if they leave a safe area and drive toward a “hot” or “warm” zone. In reality, there are very few scenarios in which the entire city would have to be evacuated at the same time. A more likely scenario would be the need to evacuate people within a defined geographic area, while having the majority “shelter in place.” The bottom line, from a public safety perspective, is that we don’t want to program people into automatically getting into their vehicles at the first indication of an emergency. It is important that our evacuation routes be posted and staffed during an emergency. But it is even more important for individuals to be informed and to remain calm and flexible in their response.

    I do want to clarify one issue with respect to the man with the tractor in Constitution Gardens. Many people have pointed to this incident and questioned whether the District is prepared to handle a terrorist attack or other large-scale emergency. This type of comparison is unfair and not all that instructive as we move forward. As the lead agency in the Constitution Gardens incident, the US Park Police assessed the threat and made decisions based on that assessment, including the decision to close traffic on Constitution Avenue, NW. This, obviously, had a ripple effect on traffic across downtown DC and northern Virginia. Had a major incident occurred during that stand-off – one that would have required the opening of Constitution Avenue for public safety purposes – the necessary steps for opening the street would have been taken, and taken quickly. But in this instance, the Park Police determined that the safety of the public was best served by not taking any chances and closing the street. It was inconvenient at the time, but it was also prudent given the unique circumstances confronting the Park Police.

  • The fifth and final area I want to touch on is especially important: telecommunications and other forms of information-sharing.

    September 11th illustrated how difficult it was for different agencies – especially police and fire departments – to communicate with one another via radios. Here in the District, with so many federal, regional and local agencies that may be involved in an emergency response, this issue takes on added importance – and added complexity.

    Over the last several months, a number of steps have been taken to address the interoperability issue here in DC, but we have not yet solved the problem. Interoperability of radio and mobile data computer systems remains a concern – and a priority – for law enforcement. Recent Congressional funding has allowed the MPD to launch a major upgrade of our radio communications system, including the conversion of our radio system from analog to digital. Once completed, this upgrade will significantly enhance our interoperability with other agencies. In the meantime, our Department has procured a small number of 800 MHz radios that we could use in an emergency to communicate with Fire/EMS and other agencies. But this is only a stop-gap measure.

    In the area of mobile computer interoperability, our Department has begun a pilot project with the US Secret Service Uniformed Division, the US Capitol Police and the US Park Police. This project will allow us to share information more easily and securely over our respective agencies’ in-car computers. If successful, this pilot could be expanded to other agencies in our region. And finally, the MPD continues to participate in the regional CAP-WIN project, a federal effort that is designed to boost cross-agency communications and information-sharing in emergency situations.

I thank you again for the opportunity to present this testimony. As I mentioned at the beginning of my statement, I have no doubt that, from a law enforcement perspective, our Department and our region are better prepared than ever before for a terrorist attack or other major emergency. I am very proud of our police officers and civilian employees for their hard work and professionalism. In many instances, the MPD has taken a leadership role in training and equipping our officers, and fostering coordination and cooperation with other agencies.

But, again, we have only built the foundation for the future. We have not completed the entire structure. Maintaining what we have in place now – and building for the future, particularly in the critical area of voice and data communications – will be critical, and potentially costly. We will need to find the resources to protect the investments we have already made, while continuing to update and expand our equipment, training and technology. There is a tremendous amount of research and development work being done in the field of counterterrorism and emergency preparedness. As the lead local law enforcement agency in our nation’s capital, the Metropolitan Police Department must be able to stay current with this evolving body of knowledge and experience.

Our Department is very appreciative of the tremendous support we have received from Congress in helping us get to where we are today. And we look forward to working with the Committee in ensuring that we remain prepared for what the future may bring. Thank you very much.