Command centers in control

From pagers to global satellite phones, emergency operations centers in

Washington, D.C., and adjacent Montgomery County, Md., have implemented

an array of communication technologies to help coordinate assistance in

the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Suzanne Peck, chief technology officer for Washington, D.C., said that telephones

were the main technology used Tuesday at the city's command center, housed

in the Reeves Center in the Northwest quadrant. But when circuits jammed

in the East Coast, she said, the center switched to cellular devices and

global satellite phones, instant messaging available through Yahoo!, and

e-mail.

"By 10 a.m. [Sept. 11], 13,000 e-mails had passed," she said before the

district shut down its government offices. She said about 20,000 e-mail

messages pass through the system in a typical day.

The command or "augmentation" center, she said, was shared by local public

service and safety agencies and federal officials, including representatives

from the Secret Service, the FBI, the National Park Police, and the National

Guard.

Peck said D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams was giving a tour of the facility,

which holds 70 people, to Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn and New Orleans Mayor

Marc Morial when the attacks occurred.

Peck said other systems used or available at the center included:

* Scrolled running commentary displayed on large screens.

* Posting "sterile images" of video that, for example, would show real-time

situations at bridges.

* A situation reporting system that keeps track of incidents.

* An emergency alert system to broadcast real-time messages and scroll them

across cable systems. (She said the system was not used and did not know

why.)

* A video link to Virginia Department of Transportation bridges and gateways.

* Full traffic control and intersection control of the district's 1,500

traffic quadrants.

In Montgomery County, Dennis Rooney, its telecommunications chief, said

its emergency operations center was established shortly after the attacks

as a support for local governments.

He said the center, located at the county office building, had a complete

radio room that could dispatch police, fire and emergency personnel, and

have contact with area hospitals. He said the county also recently installed

an 800 MHz radio system with two-way radios for public safety agencies.

To help with calls from residents, 12 telephone lines were added to the

15 to 20 already in the crisis center. Wireless phones and two-way pager

systems, which allowed people to send e-mails, also were available. The

center had 25 laptop computers connected to a local-area network and with

e-mail access.

"We did use e-mail extensively," Rooney said, adding that officials sent

general e-mail messages Sept. 11 and Sept. 12 alerting county employees

about whether the government would be open.

From the morning of Sept. 11, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments

-- composed of 17 regional jurisdictions—and the federal government were

involved in hourly conversations and briefings about the situation. He said

Montgomery County fire rescue personnel were deployed to Arlington County,

Va.—where the Pentagon is located—while Arlington's fire rescue squads

fought the Pentagon blaze, which began after a hijacked commercial airliner

crashed into the building.

Both officials said that the command centers worked smoothly and credited

their preparation for the Year 2000 computer bug two years earlier.

"Y2K preparation was tremendous," Peck said, adding that emergency plans

had been practiced "many times" and that helped people stay calm, sophisticated

and organized. Sept. 11 "looked very methodical, very workman-like, very

even-tempered," she said.

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