Emergency preparedness training is optional for lawmakers, staff, but some look for a mandate

Jan. 6 attacks put priority on updating training

Fire trucks line Independence Avenue with the Capitol under lockdown on Jan. 6, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Fire trucks line Independence Avenue with the Capitol under lockdown on Jan. 6, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 25, 2021 at 5:30am

Barricades may be coming down around Capitol Hill, but the shadow of the violent Jan. 6 attack still looms and congressional staff and lawmakers are thinking about how they can keep themselves and their colleagues safe in the case of an emergency. They are considering how well they know their own surroundings and want universal training and more information to keep them safe.

Republican Reps. Ralph Norman of South Carolina and Barry Loudermilk of Georgia introduced a bill last week that would require lawmakers and staff in the House to take emergency preparedness training focused on emergency equipment like escape hoods, egress routes, emergency alerts and safe haven locations.

The violent attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 highlighted a need for more members and staff to be trained and prepared for emergency situations.

“This incident kind of brought to light the imperativeness of being prepared in these situations,” an aide to Norman said.

Susan Tsui Grundmann, executive director of the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, said her office is also working on emergency preparedness. She told the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee last week that the events of Jan. 6 led her team to work on things that were not included in the strategic plan of goals and priorities, which was developed before the attack.

“There are a number of things that we’re doing that are outside the strategic plan,” said Grundmann. “We’re going to be looking at emergency action plans; we’re going to be looking at escape routes.”

Training sessions are currently offered to House members and some staff, but they are not mandatory. They are hosted by the House Sergeant-at-Arms’ emergency division and available through the platform that employees use for many other trainings, from workplace rights and harassment prevention to professional development sessions.

An aide for the Committee on House Administration said office emergency coordinators have been notified to encourage their office’s staff to attend an Emergency Procedures class. Training is also available for individual congressional offices via Microsoft Teams.

House Administration Chairperson Zoe Lofgren recently attended the first emergency training session solely for House members, inside the House chamber. The setting of the training was especially relevant, as lawmakers inside the House chamber scrambled or struggled on Jan. 6 to don escape hoods and ducked under chairs to hide from the mob of insurrectionists trying to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential election victory.

The escape hoods, which are clear, loose-fitting respirators, are designed to protect the wearer against a chemical or biological attack. The Capitol first acquired thousands of them in 2002 after the Sept. 11 and anthrax attacks the previous year.

Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard, left, and Ann McLane Kuster, center, take cover as rioters attempt to break in to the joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The bill would require House members and staff to be trained within 60 days of adoption of the resolution and again during each new Congress. The bill’s authors would like to see adherence to the training requirement enforced similar to how the mandatory workplace rights training is handled.

The House Administration Committee did not provide updates on if or when it might take up the emergency training bill.

Fire drills and other safety or workplace trainings are often scheduled during recesses in an effort to not disrupt congressional business. But some staff may join a lawmaker in their district or take advantage of the quieter period to take time off, resulting in gaps in knowledge and training.

“You know, if it’s not mandatory, some members or staff may blow it off. And I don’t think any of us realized that there was going to be an attack of that nature,” said the aide to Norman.

The attack on the Capitol came just three days into the 117th Congress, which meant that even if training had been mandatory at the time, dozens of incoming freshmen likely wouldn’t have been trained yet.

“There are so many new members of Congress, and members didn’t know what to do with the escape hoods. Kind of like ‘what are these?’ with people just whipping them out,” said Norman’s aide.

Another gap in training and knowledge is among the sizable population of credentialed journalists who work inside the Capitol and office buildings alongside lawmakers and their aides.

Some reporters who have covered Capitol Hill for more than a decade told CQ Roll Call they didn’t know of training available to them and had never done a fire drill, let alone an official emergency training session.

The House Sergeant-at-Arms’ emergency preparedness division has developed emergency procedures training with the press galleries to ensure that credentialed journalists working in the Capitol can be trained and be aware of steps to take in an emergency situation. Sessions are set to begin in April.

On Jan. 6, many reporters caught up in the chaos on the House side were evacuated from the House chamber alongside lawmakers. But they were then blocked from the safe haven location for members and forced to fend for themselves and rely on the kindness of individual staffers who ushered stranded journalists into offices. Inside the Capitol, journalists became targets of the insurrectionists, who assaulted photographers and stole or damaged equipment.

On the Senate side, similar to the House, lawmakers and staff are offered training and encouraged to participate, but it is not mandatory.

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, who served as the top Democrat on the Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee until February, said he remembers his own training and knows that emergency preparedness is part of incoming senators’ preparation.

He said he hasn’t heard about proposals in the Senate to expand emergency training or make it more frequent or compulsory.

“But the more ready we are, the better,” said Murphy.

The Connecticut Democrat is a longtime proponent of emergency response training, including Stop The Bleed protocols, which prepare trainees to control life-threatening bleeding until medical professionals arrive on the scene of an emergency. The program, aimed at bystanders, was developed in response to the 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.

When asked whether emergency preparedness training should be made mandatory in the Senate, Rules and Administration Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar told reporters that there are bipartisan discussions on a wide range of issues related to Jan. 6 and that a “series of recommendations” could be made public by the end of April.

Sen. Jack Reed put the push for training into a historical context, saying that when one type of threat becomes apparent, there is near-singular focus on preparing for that.

“After 9/11, there were for the next year or so drills where we had to evacuate the building, we had holding areas, we had cards with the information etc.,” the Rhode Island Democrat recalled. “Then, as the apparent threat diminished for that type of attack, they stopped that.”

He said those protocols are probably still on the books somewhere, “but we haven't practiced that in a long time.”

The Armed Services Committee and Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee chairman said there needs to be an evaluation of different types of threats and whether active and participatory training is the best approach, whether that be an evacuation drill or a computer-based training.

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.