Capitol Visitor Center employees to get pagers for safety

Employees with the Capitol Visitor Center will be given permanent pagers next month in an effort to improve communication within the Capitol in the event of an emergency such as a terrorist attack.

The move, as outlined by the architect of the Capitol (AoC) to a congressional panel on Thursday, comes in the wake of a series of articles in The Hill in which Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) employees alleged they were frequently cut off from communication with their superiors during emergencies on tours with visitors to the Capitol.

In one instance, a CVC manager flushed a bag of white powder labeled “Anthrax” down the toilet before notifying U.S. Capitol Police. The bag’s contents were deemed not to be hazardous, but it wasn’t until days later that CVC employees were officially notified by their superiors.

Stephen Ayers, the AoC, who heads the office overseeing the visitor center, announced the new pagers would receive text messages about security and safety information as well as radio messages and announcements.

“There have been instances of no response to a radio report of an emergency … cases in which phone calls to police or medical help were delayed because multiple managers each thought the other was doing it,” said Megan Burger, a member of the newly formed CVC employee union’s organizing committee, at the hearing.

The AoC is also planning to add a safety specialist to the CVC’s ranks, Ayers said in written testimony. And employees in the visitor center will be forming their own Jurisdictional Occupational Safety and Health Committee, which will allow CVC employees to meet monthly with other AoC staff to discuss best practices and safety issues.

The head of the CVC was fired in the aftermath of the “anthrax” incident, and Ayers said on Thursday that a selection process to fill the position would begin next month and be completed by April 2011.

Also on Thursday, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the chairwoman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, cited the Office of Compliance’s (OoC) annual report on the state of the congressional workplace, which found 6,300 safety and health hazards in the congressional workplace, about 1,575 of which were projected to have “the potential to cause death or serious injury to occupants.”

Though employee injuries are closely monitored by the AoC, Norton blasted Capitol officials for not keeping track of the number of visitors, or congressional constituents, who have been injured. She asked the OoC to consider recommending the AoC start keeping track of these statistics. Ayers said the Capitol gets about 10 lawsuits each year from tourists who have allegedly injured themselves while visiting.

This story was originally posted at 4:12 p.m. and updated at 8:41 p.m.