House Appropriators Question Evacuation Procedures

Posted May 23, 2005 at 6:47pm

While House appropriators offered praise Monday to chamber officials for the evacuation of the Capitol complex earlier this month, several lawmakers also questioned emergency procedures used during the event, asserting some existing measures could create additional dangers for Members, staff and visitors.

Specifically, a hearing on fiscal 2006 legislative branch funding allowed Appropriations Committee members to raise concerns over evacuation procedures that resulted in large groups of civilians massing along streets around the Capitol grounds.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) questioned officials about the existing practice, noting: “When we leave the building we’re all the more vulnerable to a chemical/biological attack.”

Similarly, Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) stated: “I don’t know about gathering thousands of people in the streets. I don’t know about that, but I guess there’s not other place to do it.”

House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood acknowledged during the hearing that officials are evaluating existing emergency procedures to determine whether it is safer for Members, staff and visitors to gather in specific locations or essentially scatter following evacuations.

Additionally, Livingood stated that a public address system now being installed in House facilities should be completed by November.

The new system “will cover all spaces: public [areas] and offices, and outside, evacuation and assembly areas and garages,” Livingood said. “That will be a tremendous help.”

Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) questioned the “shrill voices” used by some Capitol Police officers during the evacuation, suggesting the shouts could have resulted in additional confusion.

“Sometimes it’s going to take a matter of training,” Livingood responded. “We’ve only had two of these incidents. It’s called training, training, training; drill, drill, drill. We have not had lots of those. But we’re working on that situation.”

“There’s a balance,” he added. “They also have to be loud enough for people to hear them in other spaces that are not covered yet by the annunciator, so they know what the situation is.”

Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) also proposed a review of procedures for evacuating physically disabled staffers during emergencies, noting that one of his own staffers has cerebral palsy and must be carried out of the office during emergencies.

The May 11 evacuation was prompted when a Cessna 150, a small, two-seat aircraft, entered the Washington Air Defense Identification Zone, an area marked by a 17-mile radius around the Washington Monument that is off-limits to all but government, medical and military aircraft as well as preapproved commercial flights.

Pilot Jim Sheaffer and passenger Troy Martin, a student pilot, had apparently became lost after taking off from Smoketown, Pa., en route to an air show in North Carolina, and entered the air space near the Capitol and the White House.

Their aircraft was eventually forced down by two F-16 jets and a Blackhawk helicopter, and federal officials took the pair into custody after they landed in Frederick, Md. The duo was subsequently released.

However, the Federal Aviation Administration did revoke Sheaffer’s pilot’s license Friday, prohibiting him from flying for a minimum of one year. No action was taken against Martin, who holds a student pilot certificate.

During the hearing on legislative branch appropriations, lawmakers also reviewed budget proposals for House operations, including testimony from Livingood, House Chief Administrative Office Jay Eagan and Clerk of the House Jeff Trandahl, as well as the Government Printing Office, Government Accountability Office and Library of Congress.

Funding for House operations includes the CAO’s request of nearly $120 million, an increase of 7.1 percent over the $112 million fiscal 2005.

Similarly, the Clerk’s $22 million request would mark a 6.7 percent increase over the current fiscal year.

The Sergeant-at-Arms’ Office is seeking $6.3 million.

Public Printer Bruce James outlined GPO’s $131.1 million request, an increase of $11.3 million over current funding levels.

Included in the funds would be a $5 million appropriation to provide training for GPO’s existing employees to facilitate the agency’s shift to a digital-information focus.

Comptroller General David Walker described GAO’s $493.5 million fiscal 2006 budget request, a 4 percent increase over its fiscal 2005 appropriation, as “modest.”

The Library of Congress is seeking $628 million, a 7 percent increase. The amount includes $591 million in appropriations, along with $37 million in authority to use receipts.

Librarian of Congress James Billington noted the budget includes funding to complete two significant projects: the National Audiovisual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Va., as well as an overhaul of the Copyright Office.