Whether facing natural disasters or attackers intent on wreaking havoc and destruction, those who prepare and act decisively have the best chance at surviving and recovering fully, experts said at a March 29 public-safety preparedness program in McLean.
“We’re teaching people how to take care of themselves,” said Rob Brown, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management’s chief regional coordinator for Northern Virginia.“Resilience is really what we need to work for. It’s neighbor helping neighbor.”
The event, held at American Legion Post 270, was organized by the Greater McLean Chamber of Commerce, McLean and Great Falls citizens associations, and the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations.
FBI Special Agent J. Michael Talbot tackled perhaps the worst-case scenario: attackers who for personal or political reasons try to kill as many people as possible.
The Washington area is home to critical infrastructure and governmental agencies, making it a target for aggrieved and unstable people., Talbot said.
But insiders such as contractor employee Aaron Alexis, who shot and killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard in September 2013 before being killed by police, pose a different kind of menace, Talbot said. He urged employers to watch for workers who nurse personal grievances, suddenly acquire multiple weapons and take unusual interest in target practice.
Talbot dislikes the term “active shooter” and prefers “active killer” to describe those who seek to destroy without regard for their survival. He played surveillance videos from a Parisian cafe that was among locations Muslim terrorists attacked in November 2015. Some patrons hid and huddled together while others immediately fled – an understandable reaction, albeit one that still leaves others to their fates, he said.
The audience gasped when a shadowy figure on the cafe’s patio leaned over for an extended period, then ran off. Two people then emerged from the spot directly beneath where he had been standing – and who certainly would have died had his rifle not jammed.
Self-reliance is critical, as 41 percent of such attacks are finished before law enforcement arrives, Talbot said. People have three options: Run, hide or fight. Negotiating with attackers is futile, as they’re bent on killing, he said.
People who decide to flee should peek around corners to make sure attackers aren’t nearby and should take stairs instead of elevators, which are confined spaces and might open their doors in an assailant’s vicinity, he said.
Talbot advised leaving all belongings behind, with the possible exception of cell phones, which should be silenced, not put on vibrate mode. “During these situations, things get eerily quiet,” Talbot said.
People hiding should comply with police commands and avoid moving suddenly or having anything in their hands, he said.
Talbot urged those who decide, or have no choice, to attack the assailants to do so with as much physical aggression as possible.
Natural disasters are not limited to tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and windstorms like the 2012 derecho that struck the area. The Washington region also was hit by an earthquake August 2011.
Maureen Scholz, vice president at McLean Insurance Agency, said she has seen an uptick in clients who need to buy flood insurance.
“You look at the map and say, ‘Wow, that’s never going to flood,’” she said. “But it does.”
Alex McLellan, an Australian army veteran and now CEO of Quality Business Coaching, said multiple lightning strikes at his business had caused disruptions that required three months from which to recover fully.
While large companies have the resources to weather such emergencies, small businesses often do not, McLellan said. After major disasters, about 80 percent of affected businesses either never reopen or close within 18 months, he said. Having a business-continuity plan in place more than doubles the odds of a company’s survival.
Business owners should think far beyond day-to-day problems that usually occupy their time, the experts said. Commercial operations can be hurt by events, natural or human-produced, outside their walls and failure to plan for such contingencies can be disastrous.
For example, “if someone messes with our banking system, it will bring us to our knees like any other kind of attack,” Brown said.
Panelist John Jewell of Jewell Technical Consulting Inc. recommended businesses back up their computer data and keep it off-site.
Grelia Steele, community-outreach coordinator for the Fairfax County Office of Emergency Management, cautioned against reliance on technology in disasters, as communications equipment may be disabled, but also recommended communicating via social media, if possible. Under a partnership between Facebook and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, people can check in as “safe” during disasters.
County officials recommend residents keep at least three days’ worth of supplies on hand to cope with unexpected events. Some must-haves: food, water, a radio, flashlight and batteries, medications and supplies to keep pets fed and healthy.
Some at the event also touted Community Emergency Response Training, which teaches people how to protect their communities.
“When the proverbial you-know-what hits the fan, you’re going to have to rely on your community,” said Darren Ewing of Pimmit Hills.