Sept. 11 Chaos Prompts Exit Plan
Federal Workers Would Get Orders Within 15 Minutes
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 17, 2002; Page A01
A plan designed to initiate the evacuation of all federal workers within 15 minutes has been approved by the Bush administration, setting in place what officials hope will be an orderly exodus if there is an attack or an imminent threat from a weapon of mass destruction.
Known as the Federal Emergency Decision and Notification Protocol, the plan is designed to address the confusion that resulted Sept. 11, when federal and local officials were initially overwhelmed by an unfolding attack that rendered communication difficult and forced them to improvise.
The protocol empowers the directors of three federal agencies -- the Office of Personnel Management, Federal Emergency Management Agency and General Services Administration -- to release up to 350,000 federal workers in the Washington area and 1.8 million nationwide once a threat is confirmed. Their decision would trigger a series of bulletins to federal agencies, elected officials in the District, Maryland and Virginia, local public safety agencies and the news media.
"You just don't know what might happen next," said a federal official familiar with the plan, which has been developed over months and was presented to local government leaders this summer. "Who knows? But next time, we feel we'll be better prepared, and there won't be a director saying, 'Get hold of the mayor, get hold of local government,' and we can't deliver on it but still as a federal agency have to act."
New 24-hour operation centers have been set up by the three agencies, which are in continuous contact with the FBI, anti-terrorism task forces, the U.S. Capitol Police and state and local police. Key federal and other government personnel in executive positions have been assigned cellular or satellite phones, wireless e-mail devices, radios, classified communications gear and laminated wallet cards with emergency call lists, federal officials familiar with the protocol said.
The process would be set in motion if there were a widespread attack or a threat of an impending biological, chemical or radiological assault. The directors of the three agencies would confer with the Department of Justice, the Office of Homeland Security and local emergency management officials. The directors -- Kay Coles James of OPM, Joseph M. Allbaugh of FEMA and Stephen A. Perry of GSA -- could alert the White House, local elected leaders, the Metro system and regional emergency managers within minutes. Notification to the agencies and the public would follow.
The system has been drilled down to less than 15 minutes, OPM spokesman Scott Hatch said. "We have this [initial] official notice to the emergency agencies simply to allow them -- even if it's two, three, four, five minutes -- to give them as much advance time as we can," he said.
The operational details of evacuating tens or hundreds of thousands of motorists and transit riders are being developed independently.
Transportation departments in the District, Maryland and Virginia, for example, have identified evacuation corridors and synchronized traffic signals for rapid movement. Police have identified critical intersections where officers are to be posted to hand-direct traffic and set up surveillance systems to monitor exit routes. The Metro system has developed similar plans to activate trains and clear tracks.
Left unclear by the plan is how federal agencies execute the evacuation. Congress and the courts are independent of the president. Even Cabinet secretaries and senior agency directors have autonomy over their employees and buildings, and they are developing procedures.
On Sept. 11, for example, the Interior, State and Treasury departments, Securities and Exchange Commission and General Services Administration next to the White House evacuated their workers even before an order from the Office of Personnel Management. At 10:08 that morning, the White House and the OPM shut down the federal government without notifying Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) or any other local leaders because they could not be reached.
"People understand that instead of willy-nilly doing dismissals, unless you absolutely can't get through to anybody, you need to check and see what the policy is," a federal official said.
In some scenarios, it might be safest for workers to stay in their offices. "The worst thing that could happen is, they would be running out into danger," another federal official said.
The plan envisions a critical role for the news media. While federal agencies would receive orders through an updated Cold War-era telephone land line, newsrooms have set aside unpublished, dedicated telephone lines on which federal orders would be issued.
James has made clear that the news media are "a reliable and trusted source for message," a senior official said. "There might not be time to alert every single person or every single entity. The media alert is that alert to you."
Similar planning is underway at 23 Federal Executive Boards overseeing operations across the country, a GSA spokesman said.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) praised the plan but said local officials might need more input. "It's a good start, considering that September 11 was such a flop," she said. "My major concern is not with notification but with simultaneous communications. These are the kinds of decisions that have to be made jointly."
John A. Koskinen, the District's deputy mayor and city administrator, also praised the plan but said individual federal agencies could do more to coordinate in lesser crises. "This is a significant step forward," he said. "But we have to have an ongoing dialogue about more likely and more frequent situations."
D.C. Using Dirty Bomb Detectors
Old Gear Revived For New Threat
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 17, 2002; Page B01
The District government has begun digging Cold War-era Geiger counters and other radiation detectors out of storage and distributing them to city firehouses to try to give firefighters an early warning after a "dirty bomb" detonation or other act of nuclear terrorism.
Fire crews near downtown already are using a handful of the old detection devices. More than 200 more have been sent to New Jersey for recalibration, and District officials plan to distribute them to every fire engine in the city and to police and emergency management officials near the end of next month.
The D.C. fire department's hazardous materials unit carries much more sophisticated equipment, but rank-and-file firefighters say the Geiger counters -- some of 1960s vintage, bearing the old Civil Defense logo -- could help those first on the scene of a terrorist attack.
"In the scenario of a dirty bomb, we just want to know, is there a secondary hazard" from radiation after an explosion, said Battalion Chief Richard Sterne, who oversees downtown firehouses. With the Geiger counters, he said, firefighters will be "working a little smarter."
The possibility of a dirty bomb -- a conventional explosive wrapped in some kind of radioactive material and designed to spread radiation and panic -- is one that area public safety agencies included in exercises even before Sept. 11.
The department's hazardous materials unit, once a part-time squad, has been flooded with federal money since Sept. 11. Battalion Chief Mike Sellitto, who oversees the unit, said it now has very modern equipment for dealing with nuclear, biological and chemical attacks. But the unit, housed at 2225 Fifth St. NE, probably wouldn't get to the scene of an attack until after a regular fire engine.
Similar preparations are going on elsewhere. The Montgomery County fire department distributed sophisticated radiation-detection equipment last month to its district fire chiefs, who might arrive at an explosion scene before the specialized hazmat unit, a spokesman said.
The federal government began a program this summer to give unneeded radiation detection equipment from the Department of Energy to governments that want it for homeland defense. The District has asked for help from this program, an Energy official said.
But the bulk of the radiation equipment slated to be given to D.C. firefighters has been in the city all along. The devices, part of the Civil Defense program, were forgotten as tensions between the superpowers declined. This year, they were found in firehouses and in storage used by the city's Emergency Management Agency.
The ones held by the Emergency Management Agency -- more than 200 devices, including Geiger counters and more sophisticated equipment -- were sent to the New Jersey State Police. That department will recalibrate them for $5,000, EMA Director Peter G. LaPorte said yesterday.
When the recalibrated devices come back in late September, they will be distributed so that each of the city's 33 fire engines has one, Sellitto said.
Other jurisdictions and most big-city departments have given such radiation-detection gear only to specialized units like hazmat and rescue squads. An official with the U.S. Fire Administration said yesterday he was not aware of any other fire departments in the nation that have Geiger counters on all their fire engines.
While the city waits to get the recalibrated devices, a few crews near downtown are using Geiger counters the department found in various firehouses. The devices were brought to George Washington University Hospital and tested, and the seven or eight that seemed to work were handed out immediately, Sterne said.
But the old detectors don't seem to have the same accuracy they once had. "We don't completely trust these things," he said.
At Engine 23 on G Street in Foggy Bottom, the Geiger counter is still kept in its olive-drab bag, and the handbook firefighters must consult for it is dated April 1963. On Thursday evening, Capt. Robert Mullikin had to turn it on twice before the needle responded as the handbook said it would. Once, he had to resort to flicking the dial with his finger when it didn't respond properly.
"To a point," Mullikin said of the device, "it gives us a little peace of mind, I guess."