Survival Guide: Peter LaPorte, director of Washington's Emergency Management Agency

Peter LaPorte

Olivier Douliery

When it comes to emergency preparedness in the nation's capital, there's no doubt that Peter LaPorte is Mayor Anthony's Williams' go-to-guy.

Since he took the job as director of Washington's Emergency Management Agency four years ago, he has seen just about every kind of emergency imaginable.

He helped the city cope with the unprecedented terrorist attack on the Pentagon in nearby Arlington, Va., and the anthrax attacks on the Brentwood Postal Facility and the Hart Senate Office Building in the city proper. What's more, he's weathered record-breaking snowfalls and helped the city survive the political protests that have become a staple of Washington life.

As director of the Emergency Management Agency, LaPorte is responsible for developing and administering the city's comprehensive emergency response plan. Under his direction, the agency has assisted each of the district's 39 neighborhoods in developing its own community preparedness plan and has distributed more than 1 million family preparedness guides.

He recently sat down with Washington Technology staff writer William Welsh to discuss the development and implementation of emergency preparedness plans for families, businesses and government.

WT: Is Washington prepared to react effectively to another attack like on Sept. 11, 2001?

LaPorte: When you look back at Sept. 11, the magnitude was so significant that two large planes hit two high rises that it is hard to compare what happened in New York City to what happened in the District of Columbia, and it is important to note that the Pentagon is in Virginia. But at the same time, the District of Columbia did get struck by a lot of remnants of that event.

Are we ready? We are a lot more ready and prepared than we ever have been. We have drilled, exercised, trained and spent significant amounts of money. We are as prepared as we ever have been, but tomorrow is another day and tomorrow we had better be better. That is kind of our mantra.

WT: How frequently does Washington update its emergency plan?

LaPorte: In the legislation, we are required to update the plan once a year and submit it to the city council.

WT: What's important to keep in mind when forming an emergency plan, whether for family, business or jurisdiction?

LaPorte: You need to look at it as different plans. We've put a family preparedness guide out that is available on the Web, in seven languages and soon to be available in Braille. We have cornered the market on getting the word out effectively on the family side of preparedness.

What are the common levels of preparedness? Communication. Communicating what your plan is [and] the assumption that you have a communications component in your plan.

In your business, the critical information that you want to make sure that you have is that you are looking at your insurance. You have your backups, you have your offsite records, that you're planning as a company the evacuation of your staff or the potential sheltering-in place.

The challenge here is that we have multiple levels to respond to, but the fundamental components of preparedness and planning come down to planning, training and exercise, and the plans have to look at the specific results that you want to accomplish.

WT: What has been the greatest challenge you faced as director of Washington's Emergency Management Agency and what is your greatest concern?

LaPorte: It is a hard one to answer because I believe we have met the challenges. There have been plenty. Part of it is that there is no downtime and there has been no downtime [for the agency], so rising up to the occasion has been a constant.

What's our biggest fear? A bio event -- no question about it. Something you can't put yellow tape around.

WT: What can government contractors do to improve their plans for protecting their physical and human assets?

LaPorte: Part of it is understanding the programs that are going to be required on the states to do their planning process. We are going to go through an assessment process of looking at threat and vulnerability, looking at critical infrastructure and the risk to that infrastructure and the community if it was taken out or disabled.

I also believe there needs to be a focus on public health. It fits into preparedness. It's on the same street but maybe in a different lane. But it is important that that bridge comes together from public safety and public health on the biological side.

So in the planning process, part of it is understanding what is the national plan, not the federal plan, but the national plan, and looking at what has been written by the president and the administration.

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