Spouses Urged to Prepare Individual Emergency Plans

Posted March 25, 2003 at 3:29pm

Acknowledging the central role Members’ families play in decisions they might make in the event of a disaster, security officials have briefed Congressional spouses on both sides of the Capitol in recent weeks, attempting to assuage their concerns and strongly encourage them to develop their own emergency plans.

Many lawmakers — including some members of leadership — have voiced concerns about relocating to a secure location without their families. A significant portion of the House or Senate leadership or rank-and-file declining to reassemble if catastrophe struck could threaten the continuity of the legislative branch itself.

“Currently it is their decision,” Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said. “I think whatever the situation is, hopefully we’ll be able to present them with enough facts to convince them to make the best decision for them and the continuity of Congress.

“The psychological well-being of the Member is in part based on knowing that their loved ones are safe and the plans that we have for the continuity of government,” he continued. “Involvement with the spouses is simply community policing. They are part of the community.”

In an effort to both calm nerves and provide up-to-date information, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) organized a conference call a few weeks ago with Members’ spouses and the Sergeant-at-Arms, Capitol Police and the Attending Physician.

Shortly thereafter, a group of House Members’ spouses worked to organize a similar call with officials from that chamber. Last week, the House Administration Committee hosted a conference call for spouses with Gainer and several key officials, including: Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood, Chief Administrative Officer Jay Eagen, Attending Physician John Eisold, emergency preparedness chief Curt Coughlin and Clerk Jeff Trandahl.

Approximately 170 spouses participated.

A “Dear Colleague” letter from House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and ranking member John Larson (D-Conn.) went out the day before inviting all spouses to join the call. “The conference call will focus on the topics of emergency communications and general security information,” the letter read.

“Spouses wanted some questions answered,” Debbie Dingell, wife of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), said of the conference call. “Everyone recognizes what a difficult time it is.”

Dingell serves as co-vice chairwoman of the Members and Family Room, a staffed area on the third floor of the Capitol, along with Caroline Aderholt, wife of Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.). Reps. Chris John (D-La.) and Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), chair the group.

“This isn’t anything new,” she said of efforts to keep Members’ spouses in the loop, but she added that the issue has taken on added significance in recent months. “Bob [Ney] has been on an ongoing basis very supportive.”

One of the ways spouses wanted to get in the House communications system was via BlackBerries.

“BlackBerries are something spouses would like to have,” Dingell said.

The point was made to the spouses, however, that the wireless e-mail tools do not work all over the country, a significant hurdle as many spouses live outside the D.C. area.

But Dingell said the group is interested in “working under the [House] rules” to find another communications solution.

“Certainly [there have] been a lot of conversations about that,” Gainer said. “The current rules [state that] BlackBerries on the government’s dime are not recommended.”

As an example of a possible solution, Gainer relayed the story of his own family. His wife and son have their own BlackBerries, which they can use to communicate with the police chief on his government pager.

“We do it on our own dime,” he said. “We shared those simple stories with the spouses and the Members. The bottom line is that the family is in the same boat as everybody else in the country.”

Gainer explained that the Capitol Police have tried to serve as a support mechanism for families developing their own plans. “We’ve laid out procedures [and said:] Here’s the salient issues.

The chief said he has also fielded questions about whether Congressional spouses would get escape hoods in the event of a biological or chemical attack on the Hill. “The answer both to my own family and them is no,” Gainer said, explaining that if Members’ families are on the Hill in the event of a disaster, the Capitol Police will give them hoods.

But if they are three blocks away from the Capitol during such an attack, he noted, “you probably won’t need it.”

But recognizing the possible connection between Members’ willingness to go to a secure location in the event of an attack and their comfort level about the safety of their own families, Gainer said security officials have been working hard to alleviate their concerns.

“As the spouses get more comfortable with that — and I truly detect that’s happening — then the Members can say, ‘I know where my spouse is, I know what the school is doing for my kids,’” he said. “I think that’s very important.”

Gainer added that spouses began grappling with these issues when the new Congress was sworn in. “Spouses are learning what these new roles may mean,” he said. “What’s going to happen when [and if] things go south, and how are they going to communicate,” Gainer added.

Indeed, during orientation for new Members, House spouses received more than the usual briefings on maintaining two residences and keeping up family life with Members working long hours. They were asked to attend a security briefing, which featured many of the same officials that participated in the conference call last week.

Gainer said such planning has continued. He cited sample emergency plans on the House and Senate Web site that Members can share with their families and also with those of Congressional staffers.

“Planning is contagious,” he said.