OPM issues guidelines for emergencies

OPM's emergency guidelines

On Sept. 11, 2001, federal officials discovered they didn't have an evacuation plan for the nation's capital. As thousands of federal workers left work early because of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon and fears that others could be coming, Washington, D.C., streets and routes out of town became impassable.

Agency managers found they could not communicate with workers, and employees found they had nowhere to turn to learn whether they could leave early or take the next day off. And it was anyone's guess about who was in charge.

That uncertainty will never happen again, Office of Personnel Management officials said. The newest OPM directive is intended to make sure federal managers work with employees to prepare for a potential emergency — from a terrorist attack to a hurricane.

"We all recognize that federal office buildings are potential targets for those who would threaten our security," said OPM Director Kay Coles James in an introduction to the newly released Federal Managers' Emergency Guide. "More than ever, employees are looking to their managers for assurance that all appropriate steps are being taken to offer the greatest security possible."

To combat confusion, the guide provides information on telework arrangements, emergency personnel and shelters.

The plans, which include pamphlets for managers and employees, were developed and tested during seven emergency preparedness seminars that OPM officials conducted in Washington, D.C.; Boston; and New York to train workers from 130 federal agencies.

They call for managers to establish a buddy system for disabled employees to help them evacuate buildings. The plans suggest identifying a cadre of mission-critical workers who will stay in contact with the agencies at all times and a telework plan that can be activated quickly.

"I would like to believe we have thought of all contingencies, but the reality is that you can't think of them all," said Clarence Crawford, OPM's chief financial officer and associate director for management.

Crawford said OPM officials have been working with the Homeland Security Department and other agencies to make sure their plans are solid. He declined to say whether agencies were equipped with gas masks, but he said top-level managers have been taught how to turn off

air valves in case of a biological or chemical attack.

"One of the challenges in this new environment is [that] the nature of the threat can be so different," Crawford said. "Depending on the type of the threat, it may be prudent for employees to remain in their office buildings rather than placing everyone in the street."

Food, such as energy bars, and water are stored at various federal buildings for emergencies, he said.

Before Sept. 11, the only emergency practices for federal officials were fire drills, Crawford said. But now agencies are developing various evacuation and security drills for a catastrophe.

Since Sept. 11, "we've asked agencies to develop programs and practice with employees so we are in a better position today than" we were, he said. "On Sept. 11, the only option was to dismiss employees. Now we know there are other options."

But planning won't do any good without accurate and timely information, said Kenneth Allen, executive director of the Partnership for Public Warning, a nonprofit organization that is lobbying for a better public alert system.

"You've got to provide accurate information, and you can't just rely on radio and television to tell people what's happening," Allen said. "A warning is only as good as telling people what to do. You can't just tell them to evacuate but how to evacuate. You need to have contingency plans in place in case something happens.

As part of federal officials' plans to modernize emergency warnings to the public, officials at the Federal Communications Commission issued a notice last month seeking comments on ways to improve the Emergency Alert System, which is supposed to issue warnings via radio and television in an emergency. The system was launched in 1997 to replace the Cold War-era Emergency Broadcast System, but it was not activated during the terrorist

attacks.

"This is the first time in years that the federal government is taking an active look at warning systems," Allen said.

"I've even done [an emergency plan] for my own family," Crawford said. "That takes the pressure off me."

Managers at the helm

Office of Personnel Management officials have issued the following guidelines for federal managers dealing with the threat of a terrorist attack:

Follow local emergency operations procedures.

Keep employees informed.

Use battery-operated radios and

televisions.

Modify the rules if they are in the way.

Make sure employees are familiar with emergency procedures.

Establish rules for teleworking in an emergency.

Designate a shelter with few or no windows in your building.

Conduct regular drills on evacuation and shelter-in-place contingencies.

Keep in touch with FBI or local police officials for emergency preparedness and threat assessments.

Source: Office of Personnel Management's Federal Manager's Emergency Guide

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