LOC Staff Seek Evacuation Investigation

Posted May 27, 2005 at 5:19pm

Library of Congress employees are seeking a formal investigation into the agency’s emergency procedures, asserting a series of failures — including the stranding of disabled staff — which occurred during the recent full-scale evacuation of the Capitol campus.

“We suggest that they review the entire program because there seem to be critical fault lines at various points,” said Nan Thompson Ernst, an employee in the Library’s Manuscript Division who represents the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2910 on the LOC’s Safety and Health Committee.

In documents filed May 25 with the Office of Compliance, the four unions that represent Library employees have requested a health and safety review of the LOC’s emergency plans.

Among the problems detailed in the call for a formal investigation is the alleged failure to evacuate disabled staff — who may include handicapped people as well as those with medical conditions such as heart disease or asthma or those with limited mobility that makes descending or climbing stairs difficult.

“The most serious flaw is what we do with our disabled employees in a non-fire evacuation situation,” Congressional Research Employees Association President Dennis Roth said. Although emergency plans call for fire department personnel to remove disabled staff during fire emergencies, no such procedure exists for other scenarios, union officials said.

According to the complaint, Library of Congress Police instructed “volunteer disability assistants” to evacuate the building about 10 minutes after alarms began to sound in the building on May 11, essentially abandoning disabled employees.

In the James Madison Building, some disabled employees attempted to navigate stairways, and another group eventually exited the facility with the assistance of an Architect of the Capitol employee who was able to provide access keys to conduct an elevator evacuation.

“The people who got out, got out by luck, not by a process of practice and planning and procedure,” Ernst asserted. The report states there is no provision for elevator evacuations in the LOC’s written evacuation procedures.

Library spokeswoman Helen Dalrymple acknowledged officials received a copy of the union’s complaint late Thursday afternoon.

Although she did not address the complaints, Dalrymple said LOC officials are currently reviewing emergency procedures, and she reiterated a statement that appeared in the May 27 edition of the Library’s newsletter, The Gazette.

“As with all incidents of this sort, Library managers, police and emergency management personnel will continue to review what happened and determine whether improvements can and should be made,” Dalrymple wrote.

Ernst acknowledged that the LOC has improved its emergency procedures following a December 2003 citation from the Office of Compliance for failing to implement and train employees on an action plan — “We have made a tremendous amount of progress since that time,” she said — but asserted that serious flaws still remain.

In reference to the preparation of plans for disabled staff: “This is the critical area that we have not made any progress on.”

Additionally, the new investigation request asserts that LOC personnel received differing directions with regard to evacuation procedures.

Although fire alarms sounded in the Library’s three buildings, the complaint states that staff did not receive “oral instructions” about the emergency.

While James Madison Building staff were allowed to congregate in designated assembly areas, personnel exiting the Thomas Jefferson Building were directed to move away from the Capitol itself, the request states.

“I don’t know why it took us three iterations, when everybody else got the message initially,” Roth said. According to the report, Madison staff were not provided with additional instructions for three to five minutes after other staff.

Pagers provided to hearing-impaired employees also apparently failed to work properly, the complaint states.

The union’s request also details extensive concerns regarding the Library’s police force and its involvement in emergency procedures.

“It appears to us, in most of these cases, it points back to the Library Police in an area where they failed to provide a necessary service,” Ernst said, pointing to concerns over the distribution of emergency information, as well as the evacuation of disabled staff, the manning of exitways and traffic management outside the buildings.

Among the complaints listed by the unions are that only three Library Police officers were on hand when the evacuation began in the John Adams Building, which houses LOC employees as well as Congressional staff and the Office of Compliance.

“These officers had to break down revolving doors, provide security, and direct an orderly evacuation,” the complaint states. “No officers were available to provide assistance and communication to disabled employees stranded in the Adams building.”

The unions requested that the OOC investigate “whether the number of officers currently assigned to Library duties is sufficient to handle Library emergency evacuations.”

The May 11 evacuation cited in the complaint occurred when a Cessna aircraft entered the Washington Air Defense Identification Zone, a highly restricted area marked by a 17-mile radius around the Washington Monument established after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The incident prompted the evacuation of the White House, the Capitol and its office buildings, as federal officials dispatched two F-16 jets and a Blackhawk helicopter to force the plane out of the area and to a nearby airfield in Frederick, Md.