Washington, D.C.: Capital Coordination

The day the country mourned the passing of thelate President Ronald Reagan and awaited his casket for a publicmemorial in the nation’s capital, what had long been feared occurred:an unidentified plane seemingly broke through restricted airspaceheading toward Washington, DC.
Every military, law enforcement, surveillanceand emergency-management force was already in position—the funeralprocession to the US Capitol that day, June 9, 2004, had been declareda National Special Security Event—and two F-15 fighter jets werescrambled shortly after the National Capital Region Coordination Center(NCRCC) notified the Pentagon that the plane had entered the no-flyzone around Washington.
But two things happened. The fighters werenever able to get into a position that would have allowed them to shootdown the plane, and it turned out that it was bad communication thatled to the misidentification of Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s plane asthe possible hostile aircraft.
The US Capitol, hours away from hosting theofficial viewing of Reagan’s casket for thousands of Americans, wasevacuated. When news of the false alarm became known, finger pointingnaturally began, and Congress held hearings a month later to find outwhat went wrong.
“We’re still looking at that incident to seewhat went right and wrong,” said Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of theHouse administration committee, which oversees security policy onCapitol Hill. The positive spin, according to Ney, is that the chain ofcommand on the ground kicked in when it was supposed to, and the quickreaction to initial reports shouldn’t be faulted.
“When you get a phone call and you’re toldthere is a plane that is not responding and is violating airspace, youhave to consider that an emergency,” he said.
According to governmentdisclosures, thePentagon’s rules of engagement prevented the fighters from gettingclose enough to shoot down the plane anyway, leading Homeland Securityofficials to wonder how effective they would be in a real attack.
Secondly, a Federal Aviation Administrationofficial had allowed the governor’s plane to enter airspace even thoughits transponder wasn’t functioning correctly. This wasn’t communicatedto the NCRCC on the ground, and that agency interpreted the plane as aviolator.
“We’ve learned,” said Ney. “That, of course, taught us a lot.”
The tightrope
The June incident aptly illustrates theever-present tightrope the massive web of bureaucracy that is theNational Capital Region (NCR) must walk in the post-Sept. 11, 2001,world. When just one player fails in his job, the rest of the systemcould find itself in a freefall, and if the threat is truly real, theremight not be a safety net waiting below.
“It’s a fairly big responsibility,” saidDennis Schrader, the director of Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s Officeof Homeland Security, who also serves as the state’s operationalrepresentative to the NCR Senior Policy Group. “There’s been quite alot of effort—I’ve been on board for 16 months and I’ve seen quite alot of activity into building a culture of coordination—it’s been quiteextraordinary, frankly.”
Schrader’s counterpart, George Foresman,assistant to Virginia Gov. Mark Warner for Commonwealth Preparedness,calls the NCR “probably the most complex region in terms of turfdoms,if you will, of any place in the country.”
But the attack on the Pentagon on 9/11, whichleft 184 dead, changed what had been a marginal relationship built onshared transportation and emergency management needs, into a muchbroader, more intense regional organism.
On 9/11, the two states and the District ofColumbia rushed fire and emergency management services to the Pentagonscene in northern Virginia, and threw into gear their strategy forbacking up each other’s fire stations and emergency medical serviceunits back home. They were greeted by convoys of 18-wheeler trucks fromthe Federal Emergency Management Agency, filled with supplies andreinforcements.
“Mutual aid, by anyone’s measure—and therewere after action reports that quantified this—worked very well (onSept. 11),” said Dave Robertson, executive director of the MetropolitanWashington Area Council of Governments (COG). “No one jurisdiction cantruly staff a catastrophic incident.”
So DC-area homeland security officials hadsomething on which to build. When the Department of Homeland Security(DHS) was created in 2002, it established the NCR as an official entitytasked to coordinate homeland security, and used the COG to provide anorganizing structure. It also provided an Office of National CapitalRegion Coordination (ONCRC) and a link to the federal bureaucracy.
“The three principals (DC Mayor AnthonyWilliams, Ehrlich and Warner) got together and, working together withour local partners,” began pursuing broad plans for “citizen education,improved coordination and decisionmaking,” said Foresman.
“They made sure all the players—the local,the state and the federal agency players, and the executive branch,were participating,” he added.
A Regional Emergency Coordination Plan wascreated with a $75,000 grant to the COG. It laid out a baseline planfor the NRC and any organization, institution or business that may havea role in responding to a threat of terrorism or hazard in the region.
In the plan, Regional Emergency SupportFunctions (R-ESF) were defined to break down the basic functions sharedby the jurisdictions, like firefighting, transportation, lawenforcement and health. This allows officials in each group to identifyresources, coordinate training and drills, organize and shareinformation.
The plan also created the Regional IncidentCommunication and Coordination System (RICCS), which, according toofficials, effectively allows each group to put out bulletins to itsmembers whenever an alert is triggered that affects their R-ESF.
“There was a void for a period of time,”noted Barbara Childs-Pair, director of the DC Emergency ManagementAgency. “The NRC is the whole process of pulling us together. The goalis to ensure that we communicate with each other, be consistent. It’sbeen going pretty good.”
She and others are also applauding theinstitution of a uniform radio frequency for all first responders inthe region, a goal that took a while to accomplish. Interoperabilityremains elusive, but has improved greatly since 9/11, said officials.
Like any new relationship that dazzles withpromise before the fault lines begin to emerge, this one has not beenperfect, officials point out. “What you have is a maturation ofrelations,” said Foresman. “It’s not perfect by any stretch of theimagination, but I’ve been in this business in Virginia since the1980s. The level of coordination is much better today than it was threeyears ago.”
Challenges
But there have been bumps along the road. AGovernment Accountability Office (GAO) study released in June 2004Coordinated Planning and Standards Needed to Better Manage FirstResponder Grants in the National Capital Region(http://www.gao.gov/new. items/d04904t.pdf) found that much of the $340million poured into the region from the federal government after the9/11 attacks had been spent with no visibly coordinated effort.
According to the GAO report, money flowinginto each of the jurisdictions was not tracked effectively by the stateand district governments, nor by ONCRC. It cited duplication inpurchasing and a lack of assessment in gauging where the money wouldbest be spent.
A lack of funding guidelines and confusing procurement procedures contributed to the problems, according to the GAO.
Officials from Maryland, Virginia and DCadmit they immediately went after the “low-hanging” fruit after 9/11 tojuice up equipment for their first responders, infrastructure securityand public health resources. Money was spent without preparingblueprints in advance.
“The fact remains that, post-9/11, there wasa tremendous amount of energy and a lot had to happen and happenquickly,” said Robertson. “If we had more time and more analysis, wouldthose allocations be made differently? No doubt about it.”
Tom Lockwood, the ONCRC director, said theGAO report reflected a turning point for the NRC’s existence—it dealtwith moneys from 2002 to 2003, much of which had come before DHS waseven established.
“What we’re doing is changing the way public safety is being done—and that’s not going to change on a dime,” he said.
Aside from the money that each jurisdictiongets from homeland security grant programs and funding from otherfederal agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Servicesand the Department of Justice, the NRC received $97 million in UrbanArea Security Initiatives (UASI) funds from 2003 to 2004. These fundsare only to be used for regional purposes.
UASI funds are expected to increasedramatically over the next year, as Congress has included in thesweeping November intelligence bill a formula that changes the way itchannels money into first-responder and preparedness programsthroughout the country, basing it more on need and regionalvulnerability than on population or geography, said officials.
About the time of the GAO report, DHSSecretary Tom Ridge announced that the office would be standardizingprocurement and procedures among the jurisdictions, as well asgrant-tracking systems and state and local procurement staffing. Healso said some of the requirements that had caused purchasingbottlenecks previously would be eased.
“I think in the National Capital Region, thewagon is catching up to the horse,” said Foresman. “A lot of theseprocesses and procedures are being institutionalized, we are enforcingdiscipline.”
The targets
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill and in otherpotentially vulnerable government facilities throughout Washington,federal security officials have beenworking closely with the DCgovernment to ensure safety and continuity throughout the city.
It’s a task that brings with it anotherdifficult balance—ensuring security from terrorist attacks, whilekeeping the government open and accessible to the public. In otherwords, not creating what some skeptics have called “fortressWashington.”
“There are always going to be vulnerabilitiesin a country that values freedom,” said Rep. James Langevin, (D-RI).“The important thing to remember is there has to be a balance. Weshould not have to sacrifice our freedoms and access for security.”
In December, the Capitol was hurriedlypreparing to finish as much of the outside of the new $558 millionunderground visitor’s center as possible before the Januaryinauguration of President George W. Bush. A nearly 10-foot-high wallsurrounded the east side of the Capitol grounds where the visitors’line used to stand. Inside that wall, and on nearly every piece of landon the rest of the property, was the confusion of construction,interspersed with a heavily armed security presence.
Fourteen new checkpoints and the closing ofthe road between the Russell and Dirksen Senate office buildings hadbeen announced in August, bringing to a post-9/11 high the number ofcheckpoints, cement blockades, bollards and pop-up barriers used toquickly shut down a street in an emergency. Here, Capitol Police workclosely with the US Secret Service, and stay in constant communicationwith the DC police and emergency services, and it appears to be workingpretty well, said Senate Sergeant at Arms William Pickle.
“These agencies have been forced to worktogether in the last three years. There’s none of what used to becalled turf battles because there’s a common theme and a common good,”he said.
As for the changes over the last three years in security, he said, “most of the changes are the ones you don’t see.”
Greg Crist, spokesman for Rep. Deborah Pryce(R-Ohio), chair of the House Republican Conference, said he feels muchsafer on the Hill these days. And that’s not easy given the constantreminders of vulnerability, like the anthrax attack that shut downCongress in October 2002.
“It’s the layered approach to security, notonly the individual contacts with police, but the checkpoints and thereal, sheer size of the force,” he said. “It’s deterrence.”
Jim Martin, assistant chief of operations forthe DC Fire Department, said communication between the city servicesand the feds has improved greatly over the years, as channels wereopened and formalized in order to synchronize messages and coordinateresponse.
“We have full-time contact with the FBI andthe Secret Service—all those agencies down there on Capitol Hill now,”said Martin. “We’ve always had unified command, but now it’s done atthe next level. It brings things together a whole lot faster.”
Not everyone has been thrilled with thecommunication. Local and congressional officials have complained thatthe city is oftentimes out of the loop when new checkpoints are raisedand streets closed off. The recent changes in August sparked outragefrom the DC mayor’s office, which said the spontaneous closures andincreased security barriers have made the city unpalatable to touristsand a pain to commuters.
“I think we should be investing in moretechnology and other ways of doing clearance and security thanintimidating people with armed forces and gates and so on,” said Rep.Sam Farr (D-Calif.).
“It’s a little more difficult for us, but wetry to work through the issues, especially when the roads are closedand roadblocks are put up without notice,” said Robert Bobb, deputymayor and city administrator, and third prong of the NCR Senior PolicyGroup. Despite the difficulties, he nonetheless cheers the cooperationbetween jurisdictions.
Analysis
The national capital area is a complexstudy—a labyrinth of bureaucracy that can be quite daunting to anyoutsider who wants to learn more about its homeland security proceduresor do business with any of the localities or state programs. Unlikeother regions in the country, to crack this nut, one has to getfamiliar with northern Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia andthe related federal agencies, as well as their separate homelandsecurity funding streams.
However, the collaborative relationship thisregion has built following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks under theauspices of the National Capital Region, has streamlined efforts,opened channels of communication and made planning for any futureattack or disaster much more effective.
Funding issues relating to tracking the moneyand measuring performance in the region has been an issue, as hascommunication between DC and the federal government on some securityprocedures. Interoperability remains a challenge for communicationsthroughout the entire system, but officials say they’re making progressand are happy with overall improvements over the last three years. HST
Kelley Vlahos is a national political reporter for FOXNews.com in Washington, D.C.
To bid on homeland security contracts for the National Capital Region
http://www1.eps.gov/spg/dhs.html
For first-time vendors with the federal government: www.arnet.gov
Office of Contracting and Procurement for the District of Columbia: 202-727-0252
Virginia Office of Commonwealth Preparedness, Vendor Inquiries: ocp@governor.virginia.gov
Maryland Department of Government Services, procurement links: http://www.dgs.maryland.gov/

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