Tech helps Hill evacuation

Practice, new equipment and other improvements in recent years have helped prepare Capitol Hill for emergency evacuations, say officials involved with such operations in the area.

House and Senate lawmakers and their staffs were able to evacuate their offices in a more orderly fashion during this week’s alert with the help from hand-held BlackBerries and experience from recent crisis situations. But the Capitol Police, which spoke for the Senate sergeant-at-arms and the House Administration Committee, don’t know if all on the Hill received the alert.

The May 11 emergency evacuation of the White House and Capitol marked the most high-profile situation since former President Ronald Reagan's funeral last June, when an arriving plane carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher prompted an evacuation.

Officials say the Capitol has made great strides after Sept. 11, 2001, when there only about 100 BlackBerry devices in the building and cell phone networks clogged due to high volume. Since then, the House has purchased e-mail-enabled handhelds for all members, while each representative gets allowances to pay for service and additional staff personal digital assistants. Thousands of handhelds are now used throughout the area, and the House also has a so-called “enunciator” system that generates audio alerts through devices in each member’s office.

During last week’s event, the Capitol Police command center generated e-mail messages at 12:06 p.m. to announce evacuation plans, telling them to move to the exits, take personal belongings, close doors without locking them and proceed to designated assembly areas. Another e-mail went out 36 minutes later signaling the all-clear.

“On the House side, we’ve made tremendous improvement from where we were three years ago in terms of the BlackBerries and the enunciator devices,” said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the House Administration Committee.

As far as safety and manageability compared to the Fletcher incident last June, "everyone agreed that everything worked a lot better, (but) it's still a work in progress," said Michael Lauer, a spokesman for Capitol Police.

Officials say the House and Senate still have no way to keep track of employees during emergencies. There are no badge swipe terminals, biometric units, web-enabled portals or telephone-based call in/out of office systems for employees or visitors. A House request for information, released earlier this year, asks vendors about solutions for personnel accountability during evacuations and crisis situations.

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