Welles: Be prepared

The recent bus and subway bombings in London raise the question of whether federal employees are prepared for terrorist attacks in major U.S. metropolitan areas.

OPM evacuation guidance

The recent bus and subway bombings in London raise the question of whether federal employees are prepared for terrorist attacks in major U.S. metropolitan areas. Even before the London bombings, attention to emergency preparedness had been escalating, with more drills, testing and information about what feds need to do.

The Office of Personnel Management and federal executive boards, which coordinate activities among department or agency headquarters and field offices, have been busy. Officials from those organizations have conducted hiring and emergency preparedness symposiums in 24 cities. They have asked agencies to designate emergency employees and to plan for evacuations, sheltering at work, drills and teleworking.

Disparities in preparedness exist, however. The Environmental Protection Agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters has installed speakers in all the offices so that everyone can hear emergency announcements. But across the Potomac River at an EPA office in Arlington, Va., no such announcement system exists.

An EPA employee said workers run up and down the halls alerting others when an emergency occurs. The employee keeps food, water, a flashlight, a walkie-talkie, a crank-powered radio and a water purifier in case of an emergency.

Transportation Department workers have participated in evacuation drills. But because the headquarters building is above one the largest Metro stations in Washington, D.C., one DOT employee speculated that a bomb explosion in that station could block DOT employees from leaving one portion of the building.

The Commerce Department has been testing continuity of operations plans, including telework options for some managers and staff. The headquarters' loud speaker for fire alarm messages is now linked to the phone system for emergency use. More redundancy and backups have been built into information systems. Staff members in the Office of the Secretary have escape hoods, and phone trees have been established.

On Capitol Hill, several incidents involving small planes violating restricted airspace have resulted in evacuations from federal buildings. Squawk boxes in Senate and House offices now alert staff members of emergencies and meeting places away from the congressional office buildings.

"One hopes the security for Congress outside in the open is as good as it is within the office buildings," said Jim Carr, a retired Navy officer. He said emergency drills rarely address the security of personnel after they have left a building, apart from taking a head count.

A Treasury Department employee is confident that employees in the department's main data center know what to do in an emergency, based on an effective departmental response to last year's hurricane and a recent power outage caused by a fire.

OPM officials will soon issue results from their Federal Agency Emergency Preparedness Survey.

If you have not had a drill at your agency recently, or you aren't sure where to go during an evacuation, check out OPM's Web site for guidance and ask your department's or agency's emergency coordinator.

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.