Now that the lights are back on and cleanup efforts are mostly complete, Fairfax County officials are evaluating what they can do better the next time the region is faced with a major disaster like the June 29 derecho storm.
Given the massive failures of communications systems following the event — most notably the county’s 911 system — some supervisors want a more old-fashioned mechanism for handling an emergency, like the civil defense “block captain” concept used during World War II.
“The best possible reaction you have when you have no communication is … to have someone on the street to knock on doors,” said Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon).
In addition to struggling to take emergency calls, County Executive Ed Long said it was difficult at times for county staff managing emergency response efforts to communicate with one another due to ongoing problems with county communcations systems.
“It was very frustrating because sometimes things would work, sometimes they didn’t,” Long said.
Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock) said the county needs to have some mechanisms for reaching out and getting information to citizens beyond social media, its website, and TV and radio stations.
“I think we really ought to think about a more robust emergency action plan in general,” he said.
Representing one of the hardest-hit districts in the county, Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) said he was very frustrated with the difficulty in gaining information about the timeline for power restoration. It also took days to get power back to high-priority locations in his district, such as assisted living facilities and county buildings that could serve as cooling centers.
“We can’t have areas of the county with no ability to put up a cooling center,” Foust said.
It should be a given that heavily treed areas like Great Falls and McLean will suffer significant damage in these types of storms, he added, so the county should consider having a location there with enough generator power to maintain air conditioning.
As for the regional problems with the 911 system due to a power outage at Verizon’s Arlington facility, the Board of Supervisors is leaving that investigation to other bodies.
Fairfax board Chairwoman Sharon Bulova (D-At large) is asking the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to create a task force to look into the 911 outages in Northern Virginia, as well as the response.
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has also created a subcommittee to study the issue, which Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity (R) will serve on, and the State Corporation Commission will be looking into Verizon’s role in the failure. The SCC is an oversight body for utilities in the state.
“I think it’s absolutely critical that we get to the bottom of what happened,” Herrity said.
Long will continue to build on his interim report on county operations during and following the storm and will present a final report to the Board of Supervisors at a later date.