Where is your congressman?
Systems help keep track of lawmakers during a crisis
- By Aliya Sternstein
- May 30, 2005
Staffers and police officers working on Capitol Hill discovered May 11 that they had no way to know whether every member of Congress had been alerted to evacuate after a small plane had entered restricted air space.
That was a serious concern for those who recalled the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the probability that a plane might have been flown into the Capitol if passengers had not forced it to crash in a Pennsylvania field.
Although the Senate has been testing proximity cards for six months, the system failed during the incident earlier this month, said William Pickle, the Senate's sergeant at arms.
Normal evacuation procedures were not applicable because the plane's trajectory included the area outside the Capitol where fleeing staffers were supposed to gather.
Normally, an emergency coordinator in each senator's office takes a head count and informs a Capitol Police officer. The emergency coordinator checks in with a police officer and swipes the proximity card. The coordinator then reports on the attendance of staffers. That data is keyed into the police officer's laptop computer. The data transmits to the police department or an alternate computer facility if the network is not working.
"Check-in did not occur in most places," Pickle said. "Individual offices had a pretty good head count, ...but that information was probably not relayed to the Capitol Police as it should be."
The House and Senate are seeking better technological methods for counting employees during an emergency, government officials said after the May 11 event. They are considering biometrics, individual proximity cards, sensors and other technologies that can record check-ins. But those technologies have plenty of problems, Pickle said.
Some biometric identifier systems might not work outside. And security is a significant issue. "We've considered security and privacy in all the developments," he said. "We're very sensitive to information of a private nature."
The ability to track people is essential for relocating federal business or setting up a virtual workplace in the event of another terrorist attack or natural disaster. To begin continuity-of-operations plans, government officials need to know where their employees are, Pickle said. In late January, the House issued a presolicitation notice indicating that it is looking for "a solution for accountability of personnel during evacuations and crisis situations."
Officials are seeking comments from industry on integrated technologies that would account for building occupants for as long as 24 hours after evacuations. That would include House members, staff, contractors and visitors. They currently don't have a method for tracking who is in the Capitol and House office buildings.
During the recent incident, House officials said other new technologies helped reduce chaos. Lawmakers and their staffs evacuated their offices in a more orderly manner because of help from handheld communications devices.
Officials said the Capitol has made great strides since 2001, when there were only about 100 handheld devices in the building and cell phone networks clogged because of high volume.
Since then, the House has purchased e-mail-enabled handheld devices for all members, and each representative gets allowances to pay for service and buy additional personal digital assistants for their staffs. Thousands of handheld devices are now used throughout the area.
The House could potentially use proximity card technology to track who has evacuated the buildings, officials say. The system would record when cards pass by sensors. For instance, a sensor affixed to an exit would record the time an individual's card reached that sensor.
Officials maintain that such information would only be used during emergencies and only when someone enters or exits the building.