[from February 2003 issue]


Last month in this space, inspired by the mayor's clarion call to make DC a place that 10,000 new people per year for the next five years will want to move into, we questioned if it would be as appealing as he would like to believe. Our focus was directed mainly at police services (or seeming lack thereof) and wondered if this, alone, wouldn't be enough of a discouragement.

Well, here it is only five week later, and now we are even more troubled about not only the police department but of a whole panoply of public safety issues.

Two events since mid-January, in particular, make us reluctant to urge our friends from the 'burbs to take a chance on living in DC. The first was that horrendous fire at 1617-21st Street, briefly described on our front page and its aftermath revealed by photographs. While we wouldn't ever say don't move here because houses can burn up and people inside can die, when we think about this one and learn that our public safety system was virtually asleep at the switch and not available to respond because the 911 center was 75 percent understaffed, leaving only one operator to be the first line of defense for a sleeping population of half-a-million souls, then we have to say that's too scary for words.

It also smacks of criminal negligence on the part of the managers responsible for permitting this to be the case. They say they don't have the personnel. Our response is that they should do whatever it takes to fill slots with managers until they have found workers who can be reassigned until new people are hired and trained. And, if the reason they are short-staffed is because the pay stinks, then persons responsible for decisions as to levels of pay need to be held to account. We don't really care what all the excuses might be, there are no valid excuses when it comes to performing one of the single most critical roles of government--protecting the citizens.

And, speaking of protecting citizens, while the mayor refuses to believe the veracity of the report of one of the house fire victims about the parked squad car officer who rolled up his window and drove away when he was frantically approached for help, there appears to be corroboration of this report, and instead of denouncing it, the mayor ought to show real concern and not call people liars. We are told the whole incident may have been caught on film by a Phillips Collection security camera, and while the police apparently didn't seem to think about acquiring that, to the credit of the museum's officials, they made a copy for police use.

But it's not just the apparent lack of real caring about what happens to citizens on the streets or in their homes that bothers so much, but now we have new concerns about real civil defense from terrorists and agents of foreign powers who seek to do harm to our country. While city government can't assume the role of the military or other branches of the federal government, it certainly can do a far better job in preparing citizens to deal with war.

To date there seems to have been only talk about planning for escape routes out of the city, other than for the half-dozen main avenues publicly identified (although no clues offered as to how to get to those routes from various neighborhoods not immediately abutting those roadways; nor is there any guidance for the thousands of residents who don't have access to private cars or how will the infirm get evacuated, etc., etc.). Point is, we've heard nothing. This newspaper, for example has never been sent any advisories to share with the public from any agency that deals with planing and responding to such events. Oh, we did just receive a press release from the Public Schools central administration informing us of a photo-op to view "school emergency provisions" so as to be able to assure our readers that there are stockpiles of food, water and emergency equipment throughout the school system. We guess that should make some of us feel better.

But what would be much more useful from the city would be to implement suggestions which have already been offered at some public meetings and even reported in this newspaper, that the ANCs throughout the city serve as key neighborhood coordinating entities that would be able to effectively manage block captain efforts by which all residents might coalesce into teams to aid each other in case of emergency. As Dupont Circle ANC Commissioner Bob Meehan has suggested, just knowing which immediate neighbors have ladders and shovels and first aid kits and cell phones, who is home in the daytime, who has what kind of vehicle at the ready, who might be identified to assist neighbors who are infirm or bedridden--all those small details could make the difference between life and death.

But there needs to be assistance with coordination and distribution of key information and even certain kinds of supplies, and only the city can do this. But so far there is no evidence that our city government is up to the task. Lately, about all we've heard is the police chief admitting it will be chaos. Come to think of it, where has the mayor been? Has he already left for a bunker in West Virginia? We may just decide to follow him.