Langevin Critical of Evacuation Options

Posted July 29, 2005 at 6:30pm

Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.) realizes that in the event of an emergency evacuation of a crowded House floor, he would probably be the last Member out of the chamber.

A quadriplegic who has used a wheelchair ever since his spinal cord was severed during a shooting accident when he was 16 years old, Langevin currently has only one way in and out of the House chamber: through a doorway in the Speaker’s Lobby on the far side of the floor.

And in a panic-filled emergency situation, actually getting to that exit ramp would most likely mean Langevin will have to wait until everyone else clears out of the room.

It’s a “critical shortcoming” in layout and planning, Langevin said last week at a House Administration Committee hearing that marked the 15th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the situation starkly illustrates one of the many challenges of trying to bring a 200-year-old working museum up to modern day accessibility standards.

And while private-sector experts and Capitol officials gave insight last week into the progress of accessibility planning and safety efforts for disabled staffers and visitors, Langevin offered up his own observations as the House’s first quadriplegic Member and as a legislator who began serving just five years after Congress finally decided to apply the ADA to itself with the passage of the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995.

Like former Senator and triple-amputee Max Cleland (D-Ga.) did on the Senate side, by being elected Langevin has helped focus efforts in the enormous task of making the Hill ADA compliant. Automatic door openers were quickly installed in his office building, and the committee rooms to which the Congressman was assigned became a priority for ADA compliance. A permanent ramp has been installed for Langevin in the Armed Services Committee meeting room and another is scheduled to be installed in the room, where the Homeland Security Committee gathers.

While those are indeed welcome improvements, the most pressing issue facing people with disabilities in the House of Representatives, according to Langevin, is in the area of emergency preparedness. He said that recent evacuations, including the May 11 incident in which a small plane violated D.C.’s restricted air space, demonstrated the need for new guidelines in moving disabled people out of the Capitol complex — guidelines that can be communicated effectively to staffers and visitors.

“I think it’s important for people with disabilities to have a known escape route and, as a backup, know of a place where Capitol Police will be to assist in a situation,” he said.

He applauded the Capitol Police and the department’s plan over the August recess to train officers to man one elevator in each building that will be used to evacuate disabled staff and visitors during emergency situations.

“I know that one elevator in the Capitol building uses a separate power supply and will remain operational in a blackout,” he said. “It may be wise to consider ensuring that at least one elevator in each office building is similarly set up to be unaffected by power loss.”

In the chamber itself, a second ramp built over the stairs directly opposite of the Speaker’s rostrum would allow those in the chamber who use wheelchairs or scooters to exit the chamber quickly without having to fight their way through crowds of Members to get to the ramp and door that exit out to the Speaker’s lobby, he said.

He expressed concerns over the option of a pull-out ramp — an idea is currently under consideration — that could be extended over the stairs when needed, saying that he is highly doubtful that in the rush of an emergency situation the ramp could be correctly deployed.

But the special needs of some on the Hill aren’t always as obvious as a lack of a ramp. Sometimes, Langevin said, seemingly normal parts of the work day betray that the Capitol complex was built in an era less sensitive to accessibility needs. For example, riding in a Members-only elevator, where the upper buttons are out of the reach for someone in a wheelchair, can be a near-impossible challenge.

But as Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman explained, that era is in the past.

All half-million square feet of the new Capitol Visitors Center have been designed “with full compliance of ADA from ground zero.”

Langevin met with Hantman early on in the CVC project “and he explained to me that the issues for accommodating people with disabilities were a forethought.”

But as the afterthought of making the rest of the Hill equally ADA compliant continues, AOC, Capitol Police and House leadership officials are determined to pay more attention to what Langevin and others who have disabilities and work on the Hill are saying.

House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) “believes it is not enough for the House to simply be in compliance with the ADA, but that the House should also be working with the disabled community to ensure that their needs are truly being met,” said Ney spokesman Brian Walsh. “To that end, one of the important things that came out of this hearing was the announcement by the chairman that he would like to form a working group of House officials and staff, as well as with outside organizations representing the disabled community so that they can work together on identifying areas of concern and improving accessibility at the Capitol complex.”

Walsh added that Ney would “absolutely welcome” the participation of Langevin in those efforts.

Members of the chairman’s staff are scheduled to meet with several of those outside groups as the August recess begins this week.