If a flood, blackout, act of terrorism or some other type of emergency hit the District of Columbia tomorrow, would community residents be able to sustain themselves without assistance for at least 72 hours?
This is one question the D.C. Emergency Management Agency asks at community emergency management tabletop exercises. These exercises, which began for residents in Wards 1 through 6 on Jan. 8, will come to Ward 6 on Saturday.
“The objective is to organize your community in the event of a disaster,” Sandra Perkins, DCEMA community and business affairs manager, said of the exercises. “If there was a major disaster, the first responders would be dealing with the emergency, so we are empowering the community to take ownership of taking care of themselves in the first 72 hours, because that is the most critical time.”
At these sessions, which last approximately three hours, DCEMA works with area first responders, police, transportation officials, the Health Department and others to arm residents with the necessary knowledge of how to react in the event of an emergency.
Each of the District’s 39 clusters has its own Community Emergency Preparedness Plan, which residents receive a copy of at the meeting. (The plans also are available on DCEMA’s Web site, www.dcema.dc.gov.)
“They’re given a scenario — it’s 9 a.m. on Wednesday, the weather is calm … and then something happens,” said Joellen Countee, a DCEMA spokeswoman. “The people around the table are asked to react, they say what they would do given where they are, and they work their way through the scenario.”
Led by a facilitator, the groups interact by answering and asking questions. The scenarios given force residents to think about and react to situations they do not normally consider.
“What they’re learning is in the event of a disaster or emergency, what would be your process?” Perkins said. “Would you have a person outside the area as a point of contact? What would you do if you were in your car in a blackout? How would you communicate with your family?”
Perkins encourages neighborhoods to form community committees “so there’s a place for neighbors to come together.” She said it is the responsibility of residents as neighbors to come together and take care of one another.
“They need to know that Miss Smith is blind,” Perkins said as an example. “We have an emergency coming, we need to make sure that Miss Smith is OK.”
Communication is something those conducting the meetings heavily stress. Perkins said figuring out how to communicate within families and neighborhoods is one of the most important factors discussed at the meetings.
While some of the tabletop meetings held so far have had up to 75 participants, others have had as few as five. Countee said the number of attendees depends on the neighborhood.
“Every meeting is different, every neighborhood is different,” Countee said. “People have different issues in different neighborhoods.”
Those different issues are broken down by clusters, as each of the preparedness plans has a list of “top hazards” for the area. For example, some of the hazards within the neighborhoods of Cluster 25 (including Near Northeast, Stanton Park and Kingman Park) are concerns over the transport of hazardous materials at the the train tracks at Barney Circle, potential flooding under the railroad overpass at K Street Northeast between North Capitol and Second streets, and the large amounts of fuel stored for cars participating in annual auto races at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, according to DCEMA’s Web site.
“This is a live document, so it’s always changing,” Perkins said of the preparedness plans. “I always want to hear feedback so if there are things in it that should be corrected, we need to hear it from the community because they live there, they know the community better.”
The Ward 6 exercises on Saturday include a morning session for those living in the vicinity of Union Station and Kingman and Stanton parks from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and an afternoon session for those in the vicinity of Lincoln Park and elsewhere on Capitol Hill from 1:30 to 4:30. Both take place at Sherwood Community Center, 640 10th St. NE.
“If they’re at the sessions, they’re interested,” Perkins said. “They want to know what to do. They won’t be scrambling, ‘I don’t have this.’ We stress so much what you really must do, because you never know what is going to happen.”