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Evacuation plan can't help if there's no publicity on it

June 02, 2006

Early last month, Rohrersville resident Daniel Moeller submitted a Freedom of Information request for Washington County's emergency evacuation plan.

It was denied, in a letter that didn't explain that Moeller could have obtained a portion of the plan that doesn't reveal things such as "specific security procedures .."

Given what was known about the plan, Moeller's request seemed like a reasonable one.

In December, John Latimer IV, director of the county Division of Fire and Emergency Services, said the plan would be submitted to the state in January. Latimer also said he hoped to have a plan ready for adoption by late spring.

At no point did anyone say that the plan would be secret. In fact, when The Herald-Mail first asked for a look at the document last October, the concern was that nobody, including most county officials, knew what was in it.

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Although the earlier version of the plan contained suggestions for items residents should place in a "go bag" if they had to leave, that list hadn't been distributed to the public.

Nor was it clear how residents would be notified that it was time to go, since Emergency Planner Stoyan Russell said that radio alerts would be impossible during power outages and door-to-door notification would be dangerous during a hazardous materials incident.

No one expects the county government to reveal, for example, the radio frequencies that emergency-service providers would use during a disaster or evacuation.

But citizens ought to know under what circumstances they should leave their homes, where they should go and what they should take with them.

Revealing in advance where shelters will be set up would put those seeking shelter at no greater risk from a terrorist attack than publicizing the locations of polling places.

So no, don't give Moeller any details about confidential security procedures. But county government should begin - right now - the process of educating citizens about what to do in the event of a flood, a tornado or even a terrorist attack.

Part of that effort should be making public any parts of the plan that would not give aid and comfort to terrorists who might see this county's proximity to the Camp David presidential retreat as a reason to try something diabolical here.

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