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STATter911 has learned Virginia officials waited until Tuesday morning before fully coordinating with local jurisdictions to deal with those stranded on I-95 following Monday’s snowstorm. According to multiple sources familiar with the handling of the incident, a unified command structure with local fire, EMS, law enforcement and other agencies wasn’t established until well after dawn. One local public safety official said efforts to provide help to those stuck, “Could have been done a whole lot quicker.”
STATter911 has talked with six current and former emergency managers from counties directly impacted by the I-95 shut down. All are baffled why it took Virginia officials so long to engage the various jurisdictions in a coordinated response to the emergency. The managers agreed to talk on background because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the issue. Some of the managers said long-established state and local emergency plans outlining multi-agency responses to emergencies along I-95 and elsewhere seem to be ignored.
These managers believe an earlier coordinated response would have focused heavily on providing aid to the people trapped on the highway. Some were stuck for more than 24 hours. The public messaging from state agencies beginning Monday afternoon and overnight into Tuesday focused solely on efforts by Virginia State Police and the Virginia Department of Transportation to get the roadway open. The managers contacted by STATter911 said that in addition to getting boots on the ground, a coordinated response involving fire and EMS would have included better communications with those stranded. This could have involved instructions and safety messages. It was only after the unified command was established that the first safety message was sent through social media. At 7:54 am Tuesday a tweet instructed people still on I-95 to call 911 if they had an emergency.
The emergency managers believe that VSP and VDOT coordinating with fire and EMS much earlier would have put a greater focus on making sure those stuck in their vehicles on I-95 were safe. Their feeling is that having fire and EMS playing a significant role starting in the afternoon or early evening Monday through the overnight hours would have better addressed needs for water, food, and shelter.
Each of the jurisdictions responded to individual 911 calls received from people on I-95 Monday and early Tuesday. When calls increased before dawn on Tuesday at least one jurisdiction set up its own local command structure focused on helping those on I-95. Even before VSP and VDOT coordinated the response, some firefighters and EMS crews walked miles of I-95 Tuesday morning to check on people.
STATter911 has reached out to spokespersons for VSP and VDOT for comment. So far, there has been no reply. Their comments and perspective will be added to this story if there is a response.