Officials Push for Campus-Wide Evacuation Exercises

Posted June 10, 2005 at 6:21pm

During a review of ongoing efforts to improve emergency procedures on Capitol Hill on Thursday, law enforcement officials offered proposals, which included conducting full-scale evacuation drills of the Congressional complex.

Testifying before the House Administration Committee, Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer, along with House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood and House Chief Administrative Officer Jay Eagen, acknowledged that a number of problem areas — including communications with Members and staff and the evacuation of disabled employees — are now targeted for improvement, while also discussing overall evacuation procedures.

House Administration officials convened the hearing to review emergency procedures in the wake of the May 11 evacuation of the complex, an event prompted when a small aircraft violated restricted airspace near the Capitol.

During the hearing, Gainer suggested that practicing campus-wide evacuation procedures could better prepare lawmakers and their staffs for an emergency situation.

“The Capitol complex has been just outstanding, especially since the anthrax and ricin [incidents] about suspicious packages and how we react, but we haven’t been very willing to do mass exercises and practices so that everybody really understands where they go,” Gainer testified.

Although Congressional officials periodically conduct evacuation drills in individual buildings, no campus-wide drills have been held.

“It’s disruptive to Congress and the committees and what’s going on,” Gainer acknowledged, “but we all know from our earlier days the value of practicing fire drills. … We certainly have not spent enough time on emptying the chamber or other buildings in real life situations.”

The Capitol Police Board commissioned a study in March to review the “emergency management structure” in both the House and Senate, Livingood stated in his written testimony, which likewise recommended periodic campus-wide emergency drills.

Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Administration panel, agreed that the drills should “become a more frequent occurrence.”

Similarly, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) praised the proposal, arguing that drills are currently conducted during periods when most Members are not on Capitol Hill.

“I think it’s important that we subject ourselves to a drill,” Lofgren said.

It is not clear, however, whether such drills will occur in the future. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), did not directly address the proposal.

During the hearing, law enforcement officials noted they are also conducting several studies to improve emergency procedures, including a recently completed review of evacuation plans for the Capitol and House office buildings.

A separate ongoing study will likewise examine post-evacuation procedures, the plans used once Members and staff have evacuated buildings.

In addition, Livingood said, another assessment is now being conducted to examine the impact various types of aircrafts could have if they were to strike the Capitol or its office buildings, to help officials determine when to evacuate structures and when to instruct individuals to take shelter indoors.

That study is being conducted by a group which includes evacuation specialists, structural engineers and aircraft experts, he added.

The Capitol Police Board is also in the process of developing a “computer-aided evacuation modeling” system.

“When the system is in place, we will be able to test and evaluate virtually any change in infrastructure, operations, security procedures, advanced technology or first response,” Livingood stated in his testimony.

Congressional officials also addressed concerns over emergency communications between law enforcement and Members, staff and visitors.

In response to an inquiry from Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) over shortcomings in the May 11 evacuation, Gainer acknowledged that communications need improvement, and noted that the department will create a new post in which one individual will be responsible solely for the dissemination of information during emergencies.

Officials are also in the process of testing and improving alarms and annunciators — the portable radio devices that alert offices to emergencies — as well as installing a campus-wide public address system.

Eagen likewise addressed concerns regarding the dependability of the BlackBerry e-mail devices carried by Members, which are are used to disseminate emergency notices.

Since Members first received the BlackBerries following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the devices have grown in popularity, and are now carried by more than 5,000 lawmakers and their staffers.

“The public grid can become overwhelmed,” Eagen acknowledged.

The CAO’s office is seeking to improve the network for the devices, Eagen said, and has contacted several mobile service providers, including Verizon, Cingular and Nextel, which service the devices.

During emergencies, emergency notices from the “House Alert” system are disseminated to e-mail accounts, BlackBerries and mobile telephones equipped with text messaging capabilities.

Eagen noted, however, that about one-fifth of the House’s 435 Members have not provided information to his office and do not receive emergency messages from the alert system.

“We can’t reach out to Members if we don’t get information,” he noted.

Similarly, Gainer noted the department has also made several efforts to improve communication with District of Columbia officials, including additional coordination with the Metropolitan Police Department.

The agency now shares its emergency messages — issued via BlackBerry — with MPD, Gainer said, and an MPD officer is detailed to the Capitol Police Command Center in its D Street Northeast headquarters.

Additionally, Gainer said his agency is also working to improve procedures for the evacuation of disabled persons during emergencies, in response to complaints that some staffers were unable to exit during the May incident.

Capitol Police officials has now compiled information on disabled employees, including room numbers, and Livingood said the Police Board will recommend a “buddy system” to provide disabled employees with escorts to reach pre-designated elevators during emergencies.

The Architect of the Capitol is currently working to provide House elevators with a backup power system for emergencies, Gainer noted. The Senate already has a system in place.

Gainer said he will also meet with advocacy groups this week to further address evacuation planning and procedures.

“It’s an ongoing, evolving process,” Gainer said.