Feds stay connected in aftermath of 2010 blizzard

Many federal employess say their work continues, even though they can't get into the office

Federal employees might be unable to travel far from their homes because of the blizzard conditions in the Washington metropolitan area, but they’re still connected to their offices via the Internet, telephone and e-mail.

Lloyd Easterling, acting director of the media relations division at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, wrote in an e-mail message this afternoon that at CBP, "We are still actively engaging where possible," although the agency's employees are not in the office. "Some employees are teleworking (probably between shifts shoveling snow like I have been),” he added.

CBP headquarters in Washington and its other agency branches beyond the nation's capital are working with limited interruptions so far, according to Easterling.

Dennis Pinkham, external affairs director at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s regional office in Boston, said FEMA employees can still get in touch with the people they need to and access necessary information regardless of whether the agency’s Washington headquarters is open.

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Pinkham said FEMA’s disaster and emergency response mission means that agency employees are prepared and have communications equipment that allow people and information to remain accessible.

Christopher Bentley, press secretary for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, was routing calls and e-mail messages today from his home near Fort Meade, Md., where the snowfall accumulated to roughly two feet. He said it took him about 10 hours to dig out his car and sidewalk.

He said all four members of USCIS' media team are working at home today—“effectively on [continuity-of-operations] procedure.”

Two people are in Virginia and two in Maryland, and additional USCIS media representatives are available as a backup in Miami, New York City and other locations nationwide. Team members take turns remotely answering and routing media calls coming into headquarters, he said.

So far, it has been a relatively calm day with no major problems, Bentley said. USCIS computer systems are operating and the remote connections are running smoothly, though a little slowly, he added.

“All of the decision-makers, if you will, are available via cell phone or BlackBerry," Bentley said. "It is not as instantaneous as walking down the hallway, but everyone is available.”

Fortunately, all team members have power at home, Bentley said. If power goes out, they can still use their car chargers to operate their BlackBerrys if necessary. “That’s all makeshift and not optimum, but in a pinch we can make it happen,” he said.

Some NASA officials left the Washington area before the storm hit last weekend.

Washington-based officials, including Administrator Charles Bolden and William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of space operations, traveled to Florida several days before this morning’s space shuttle launched from warm and sunny Cape Canaveral and well before the massive snowstorm that blanketed the nation’s capital, said NASA spokeswoman Katherine Trinidad.

Space shuttle Endeavour launched at 4:14 a.m. ET for a 13-day flight to the International Space Station. A member of the NASA public affairs staff who lives near the headquarters building walked to the office to view the early morning launch, Trinidad said.

The NASA employees in charge of space shuttle missions are based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, she said.

Key space operations personnel who are based in Washington stayed at a hotel across the street from the headquarters building so they could walk to the Space Operations Center—a room where launches are monitored, Trinidad said.

Some federal employees at other agencies didn’t have the option of heading to Florida. Although the federal government in Washington was closed today, some employees didn’t just catch up on their personal reading but found themselves working—albeit lightly.

In a chat on GovLoop.com, many employees wrote that they were teleworking in their pajamas.

One General Services Administration employee wrote that he was connected to his office. “My office is set up to access all of our systems from anywhere. We encourage everyone to telework routinely, and the downside to that is we stay open when the government closes,” he wrote.

Many area contractors are teleworking, too. Booz Allen Hamilton’s offices are open today, but most employees in the area are working from home, said Marie Lerch, a company spokeswoman.

Despite light work, some don’t seem to mind. Susan commented on GovLoop that she plans on “catching up on a bunch of online training. Don’t even plan to get out of my jammies today.”

About the Authors

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

Nick Wakeman is the editor-in-chief of Washington Technology. Follow him on Twitter: @nick_wakeman.

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.


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