DC-area officials cheer federal 'shelter-in-place' snow strategy

Thursday - 12/8/2011, 2:05pm EST

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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Federal officials joined Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia emergency management directors to reassure senators Wednesday that their coordination efforts, while complicated, will not lead to confusion and gridlock this winter.

They said new tactics, such as the Office of Personnel Management's "shelter-in-place" option for extreme weather, would encourage workers to stay put while officials cleared roads.

"Transportation capacity is always an issue," said Virginia Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security Terrie Suit. "In an emergency, the workforce tends to leave all at once, which creates gridlock. Staying in place is critical for managing through current and preventing subsequent emergencies."

The policy called for "huge cultural, behavioral changes," especially among parents, she said. But "they will stay in place if they have confidence that their children are safe."

Virginia tested its similar "stay-in-place" policy with area businesses this summer. They trained employees to prepare by learning about their children's school policies, preparing family emergency plans and sharing that information with care providers.

During August's earthquake, "they waited until five o'clock and had the best commute of their lives," she said, based on a survey of businesses after the quake.

Sens. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), chairmen of the subcommittees that oversee the District of Columbia and natural disasters, respectively, called the hearing.

In emergencies, federal and local officials work together in a partnership, but no government has authority to tell the others what they should do.

Pryor said past disasters, from January's snowstorm to the earthquake, have given them reason to worry about this model.

"We see continued gridlock in communications. We see gridlock in traffic," he said. "It raises questions. Are there leadership gaps? Is there bureaucratic fragmentation that needs to be addressed?"

With all governments' budgets squeezed, it was important to "make sure we eliminate any inefficiencies, any wasted steps, and that we squeeze every single dollar that we can," Pryor said.

But the witnesses said they were analyzing past disasters and implementing new policies and means of communication.

During the August earthquake, it took the Office of Personnel Management more than an hour to learn of damage at federal buildings, in part because of landline and mobile phone connection problems, and in part because it was an unforeseen emergency, said OPM Emergency Management Director Dean Hunter.

"It takes time," he said. "One of the things that we have noted and have strengthened in our D.C. dismissal guide policy is the need for individual agencies to be able to act when there is an immediate need for the safety and security of their employees. They have that authority and they don't have to wait for OPM's decision."

Employees will have new options for communication too.

They can find official information at the National Capital Region's website. It is "a single web stop," where people can sign up for text or email alerts, Suit said.

During emergencies, people should send text messages or email rather than call, added Steward Beckham, director of the Office of National Capital Region Coordination at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

His agency also plans to test online training that OPM is developing to teach employees how to create family emergency plans.

The training should "get [Department of Homeland Security] employees to have individual and family preparedness efforts underway, maintained and exercised so that if they have responsibilities in their federal employment, they don't have to worry about their family members," he said. The training eventually would be extended to all federal employees, he added.

Federal auditors backed the area's planning.

The region has a solid emergency management strategy, said Government Accountability Office Director of Homeland Security and Justice Bill Jenkins.

His one criticism was that it did not "consider the totality of resources in the region," which GAO has urged since 2004.

"The plan does not identify or explicitly consider in-kind resources that may be available from the Department of Defense, the National Guard Bureau or the Department of Health and Human Services," he said.

GAO plans to monitor and report on how well officials implement their strategy this winter, he added.

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