How 9/11 prompted the DC region to improve its emergency preparedness

The terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, motivated the D.C. area to sharpen its emergency preparedness, and one local expert said those efforts continue today.

The 9:43 a.m. crash of American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon triggered the evacuation of much of the area, including the Capitol and White House. The chaos caused gridlocked roadways and disruptions on public transportation. People poured out of D.C. by crossing bridges on foot.

A U.S. Department of Transportation report on the day said, “There was no communication to VDOT (Virginia Department of Transportation) from agencies in D.C., including the National Park Service and DDOT (DC Department of Transportation), regarding transportation facility closures that affected traffic volumes at entry points into Virginia, although there were requests for information from the District Division of Transportation.”

“Transportation is a key part of our region on a daily basis. We’re stressed under, frankly, day-to-day conditions,” said David F. Snyder, chair of the National Capital Region Emergency Preparedness Council.

Snyder, who has chaired the Transportation Planning Board, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, admits challenges remain today.

Snyder said moving people and assets into and out of the area “will be a fundamental issue in moving forward and managing some large scale regional issues,” but that most people “will probably need to stay in place rather than any sort of a mass evacuation of the region, which would be extremely challenging under the best of circumstances.”

New communication methods

Since 9/11, authorities have better ways to communicate with the public and each other.

The nation’s Emergency Alert System can be used by national, state and local authorities to deliver emergency information. People can also sign up to receive customizable alerts from their local governments about situations including school lockdowns or road closures.

Fairfax County Alerts, for example, allows people to register to receive alerts for up to five addresses, such as for their home, work or school. People can choose up to 10 delivery methods, including cellphone, home phone, email and texts.

Coordination among first responders has also improved.

“We have communication systems, and planning and training in place that we didn’t have on 9/11, that affects all governmental functions — emergency management, police, fire, and of course, transportation,” Snyder said.

These communication systems weren’t around on 9/11, and Snyder said they allow immediate communication between authorities between and within jurisdictions, such as a public safety radio system that can link the D.C. region together instantly.

Remembering Sept. 11

Coordination and communication systems can oversee traffic challenges, such as the Metropolitan Transportation Operations Coordination System, and a National Capital Region watch desk that provides emergency information to regional officials.

Localities have also extended agreements to share public safety personnel and resources across borders.

“All of these systems are based upon what we learned from 9/11. And, frankly, a fairly large range of incidents that have occurred since then — the earthquake, snipers, derecho and on and on and on,” Snyder said.

“Each one of these has proven the importance of regional coordination that I think was first traumatically shown to us on 9/11,” Snyder said.“ Regionalism is now in our DNA in everything we do.”

Evolving threats

“Twenty years after 9/11, the National Capital Region’s commitment to emergency preparedness and coordination is stronger than ever thanks to a wide network of dedicated, talented officials,” said Chuck Bean, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), which includes 24 local governments and 300 elected officials from the U.S. Congress, Maryland and Virginia state legislatures. “COG has been honored to connect these area officials and ensure they have the resources, plans, and agreements in place to help keep our region safe.”

COG has a homeland security/public safety section of their website.

The evolving nature of threats also means that now, more than ever, everyone needs to be on the same page, communicating effectively.

Since 9/11, Snyder said, challenges have evolved to include not only international terrorism but domestic terrorism; climate change-driven weather events such as widespread flooding, tornadoes and wind damage; gun violence, and cybersecurity attacks.

“And so it’s going to be a challenge to continue to improve our regional coordination, communication, and messaging to the public,” Snyder said.

Snyder said to remember “see something say something,” and make sure your family has everything it needs to live without power for several days.

September is National Preparedness Month. This year’s theme is “Prepare to Protect. Preparing for disasters is protecting everyone you love.”

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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