Mr. Chairman, and Ranking Minority Member my name is Nan Thompson Ernst and I work as an archivist in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress where I have been employed since 1991. Today I am speaking for the Library of Congress Professional Guild, AFSCME 2910 which represents over 1600 professional employees at the Library. For five years I have been the Guild's representative to the Joint Labor Management Safety and Health Committee serving variously as chair, secretary, and leader for projects and tasks.
The chief function of the Health and Safety Committee is to perform workplace inspections to fulfil OSHA requirements. Additionally, the safety committee is charged with promoting employee safety and health education, including training for emergency evacuation of Library buildings. In my capacity as a Guild representative, I work with the staff, safety experts, Library managers, and the Office of Compliance to identify, report and abate hazards at the Library of Congress. I am the author of "Assisting disabled staff in the Areas of Refuge" (Guild Bulletin Board, April 9, 2003) and "Evacuating disabled staff from Library of Congress Buildings (Guild Bulletin Board, Dec. 1, 2003) which I shall be happy to make available to the Committee.
Since 9/11 much of my attention has been focused on the Library’s emergency program. The Library’s emergency response plans were minimally defined before the terrorist attacks though considerable effort and expense has been directed over the years to fire safety, the perennial threat of any library. Several months after the terrorist attacks, I was asked by an employee what she should do in an evacuation. This worried employee is confined to a wheelchair as a result of a progressively debilitating disease. She is a hard-working cataloger well recognized for outstanding productivity who works on the fifth floor of the Madison Building.
When she asked me this question in 2002, I did not know the answer, but told her I would see that she got the information she may need to save her own life in an emergency evacuation. Today, in June 2005, I still cannot give her that information. Her question and my simple faith that “someone” was taking care of this problem began an odyssey which has not yet ended. I was to discover that this employee, along with about fifty other Library staff members who need assistance in evacuations, are routinely stranded in the Library with no communications after everyone else left. The more I dug into the question, the more I came to realize that no sound plan to rescue her had surfaced at the Library or, for that matter, anywhere else to my knowledge. We are told that the fire fighters will rescue stranded staff, but how or when and many other specifics no one can say. Also, what happens to the disabled if fire fighters are not called to the scene? The fire department was not called on May 11, 2005, to the Library because technically we had a “non-fire” emergency.
We have frequent evacuations at the Library, most of them triggered by malfunctions of the sprinklers or smoke detectors, and disabled staff wait in rescue areas without any word about the emergency until other employees return from outside when the “all clear” is given. So far we have been spared any tragedies though we have had a few close calls. One close call occurred on a freezing day, January 24, 2003, when cloth filters in the Madison Building's ventilation system caught fire while Architect of Capitol workers were trying to thaw frozen elements with a blow torch. The building was evacuated and it took more than an hour to put out the fire and declare the building safe to reoccupy.
After the fire, I received a call from an outraged staffer who works on the fourth floor of the building. This employee had a heart attack two weeks earlier and had been cleared by his doctor to return to work but told not to walk up or down stairs. He had never waited in the building during an evacuation and had no way to know if this was another false alarm or something real. When he heard the alarm sound, this staffer went as instructed to his assigned "Area of Refuge" located in the blue core elevator lobby and waited. (These areas are now called "Areas of Rescue Assistance.") Awaiting assistance with him was a colleague with severe asthma and another colleague with a prosthetic leg, among others. These employees waited and waited and waited. Finally, a police officer came to the rescue area and ordered them out of the building. They had no choice but to walk the stairs. As they entered the stairwell, fire fighters were rushing up the stairs and repeated the order to get out of the building. Confused and now thoroughly frightened, they began a slow and painful descent of the stairs reaching the exit in about twenty minutes.
Fortunately, that fire was contained and no further harm came to the group. However, they felt they had risked their health in descending the stairs and would not have done it if the alternative of burning in a fire had not been worse. They were shaken and angry. After this incident, I dedicated myself to seeking a solution as to how disabled staff and visitors at the Library could be evacuated in an emergency. Since then, we have had two other scares involving small aircraft in restricted airspace that prompted evacuations of the Capitol Hill complex. The incident in 2004 occurred during the funeral for President Reagan but the Library never received the evacuation order. Now communications between the Capitol and Library police are improved and we were included in the campus-wide evacuation of May 11, 2005. However, our disabled staff were not evacuated entirely because of deficiencies which remain in our emergency response program.
Throughout this odyssey, I have spoken with members of the Library’s new Office of Security and Emergency Preparedness, with staff who volunteer to assist the disabled, with the Library’s Disability Program manager and advocates for the disabled in national organizations as well as other cultural institutions in the District of Columbia. I have consulted staff from the Architect of the Capitol, union officials, and Office of Compliance safety experts and attorneys. I’ve spoken with DC fire fighters and Library police officers and officials. I attended meetings with an ad hoc working group convened by the disability program managers at the Smithsonian Institution and Kennedy Center. I read literature from the National Fire Protection Association and papers from seminars for federal managers. What I learned is that there are two ways to get disabled people out: you can carry them out bodily or in evacuation chairs or you can use elevators under controlled conditions for evacuations.
Elevators seem like the magical solution, but caution must be urged. I’ve learned that elevator shafts exert a chimney effect and can draw a fire. People have been trapped in stalled elevators and burned to death. Elevator doors have opened on the fire floor, engulfing occupants in flames. The elevator shaft may be away from the fire, but the mechanical room which operates the system may be compromised causing the elevators to malfunction or stop running. Electricity can be interrupted, causing the elevators to shut down. Rescue from a stalled elevator can take two or three hours. Dangers are so numerous and problematical that elevator manufacturers do not authorize use during fires and will not then be liable for any malfunction. These are the reasons that we have all learned not to use elevators in fires.
National Fire Protection Association’s Life Safety Code allows for elevator evacuations in limited conditions under manual control by fire fighters or other trained emergency personnel. Fire fighters are equipped and trained to fight fires and to perform rescues from stalled elevators. There are requirements to provide fire and smoke protection for the elevator car, shaft, and mechanical room and the elevator lobby. The code requires the elevator to lock out of service and to be manually operated with an over-ride key. Fire fighters can also use the elevator recall system to get heavy fire fighting equipment near the fire scene in high rise buildings.
We have been told that the Architect of the Capitol is upgrading elevators throughout Capitol Hill and installing smoke detectors with the intent of programming them to continue automatic operations unless a smoke detector activates and sends the elevator out of service. Their idea is that the disabled public could get themselves out of a burning building on Capitol Hill by using the elevator just as they do day-to-day activities. At the Library, my union has vigorously opposed this innovation. The Architect is concerned because it is becoming increasing clear in the law that the landlord is responsible for providing the means for disabled people to evacuate their buildings, as recent court decisions have affirmed.
As much as we would like to see elevator evacuations, we can only advocate for the best practice of such a risky undertaking, and best practice requires trained emergency personnel in manual control of the elevator. This is the recommendation of the National Fire Protection Association, especially in historic buildings such as ours which do not meet all the fire codes you need for safe elevator operations during a fire. If elevators remain in service, who will prevent the able-bodied from overcrowding an elevator in an emergency? How will someone waiting on the fifth floor know if the elevator has been recalled and locked out of service when smoke is detected in the mechanical room? Problems everywhere you look.
Elevators can present a good option, under the right conditions and as long as they are operated by trained emergency personnel and this is the standard we want at the Library and the standard that should be met elsewhere on Capitol Hill. But, there are only so many fire fighters and often there will often not be enough of them to rescue stranded people and fight the fire at the same time. Who else can do the job of elevator evacuations? The Life Safety Code only stipulates “trained emergency personnel” because it must be general enough to cover all contingencies. You do the best you can with available resources. If your resources include “first responders,” such as a police force, then the police are obviously the most logical choice.
Why police? The reasons have to do with how people behave in a panic. Automatic elevator service is too dangerous and volunteers may not be on duty when an emergency occurs. Volunteers can panic and run or otherwise become unfit for duty. Furthermore, volunteers do not have the authority to enforce order and to prevent misuse of an elevator which would defeat the purpose of evacuating the disabled.
Police are trained to act in emergencies; it is their job. Someone is always on post, unlike volunteers. Police have the means to communicate with the emergency incident commander and with the Library’s police communication center. Police are available in a “non-fire” emergency when the fire department is not called. To successfully perform this duty, they will require training. Police must be properly trained to perform elevator evacuations as this task is outside their regularly assigned duties.
The Library has had police protection for most of its history. For most of this history, the police have provided collection and building security acting as “book police.” Such a limited role for the Library police does not fit with our current needs. The Library Police are underutilized in our emergency response system. It is time for the Library Police to graduate from “book police” to the “first responder” role that police can best perform. We need them better trained and equipped to assist people in an emergency and to provide the means for safe evacuation of the disabled by elevators in buildings on Capitol Hill where it is otherwise appropriate.
Thank you for this opportunity to testify about a matter of deep concern to all of us in the Legislative Branch.
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