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12 years after 9/11 attacks, region still faces challenges

Wednesday - 9/11/2013, 1:46pm  ET

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The region has made many improvements in the past dozen years, including better communication between jurisdictions, but a lack of fire engines could be a problem in the area. (WTOP File)

Maintaining gains after 9/11 remains a challenge

Hank Silverberg, WTOP

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ARLINGTON, Va. -- Much has been done to upgrade the country's emergency response systems in the 12 years since Sept. 11, but has it been enough?

Arlington Fire Chief James Schwartz was the incident commander at the Pentagon on Sept. 11 and one of the first to respond there. He says the region has made many improvements in the past dozen years, including better communication between jurisdictions.

"Everybody in the national capital region now has frequencies that they can talk to each other, both across jurisdictions and disciplines. In other words, fire can talk to police and vice versa," Schwartz says.

Also, the region spent $11 million to ensure first responders can communicate in the Metro rail tunnels -- something they couldn't do a few years ago.

Other improvements include standardized bomb teams across the region and protective clothing for both fire and police responders.

They have formalized a unified command structure originally set up after an Air Florida jet crashed into the 14th Street bridge in 1982. The structure clarifies who is in charge at any given incident where multiple agencies are involved.

But Schwartz says the initial federal grants that paid for many improvements in the years after Sept. 11 have run out and local jurisdictions now have some decisions to make.

"It is more today, I think, about the sustainment of the capabilities we have built over the last 12 years," says Schwartz.

Arlington replaces fire trucks after eight years of service, but he says some jurisdictions go as long as 15 years. That creates problems with reserve equipment that would be called up in a Sept. 11-type emergency.

In D.C., an inspector general's report released in March found only seven reserve trucks in a garage where there was supposed to have been more than 20. Only three of them could be started.

The city's shortage of useable ambulances has been well documented, but staffing is also an issue.

A review by the Associated Press of data from 30 urban departments, including call volumes, response times and deployment strategies indicates a dire picture. In 2011, the fire department received 130,000 emergency medical calls. At any given time, the city has 39 ambulances on duty but only 14 are staffed with paramedics. Also, it has 21 fire trucks with at least one paramedic on board.

Memphis, Tenn., a city of comparable size, has 500 firefighter paramedics and 1,100 other firefighters who are trained EMTs. And since 2008, every firefighter hired there has to be a trained paramedic.

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