In the event of an emergency at the Capitol, disabled people could find themselves trapped in some buildings, heading away from the exits rather than toward them, or overwhelmed by smoke, according to an Office of Compliance (OoC) report.
Despite vast improvements in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), some rescue areas are still in the wrong places, a lack of signs means people could head in the wrong direction, and some congressional office buildings lack alternative exits.
Those shortcomings are revealed in the public biennial report on occupational-health safety hazards for the 108th Congress, a heavily redacted draft of which has been seen by The Hill.
Its findings are likely to be addressed in the biennial disability-accommodation report, which is in its final editing stage and, subject to additional agency comment, is expected to be released in November.
The OoC report identifies several shortcomings in evacuation routes and procedures in congressional office buildings as they relate to people with disabilities.
When asked about specific problems in the unreleased ADA report, OoC General Counsel Peter Eveleth said, “Until the finished public report is determined, it would be premature … to comment.”
Some of the problems identified by the OoC stem from the design of the old buildings. The Capitol and the Russell and Cannon buildings were built before 1911 and have few exit routes for the disabled.
The Rayburn Building has only one entrance and exit that complies with the ADA life-safety code. Some of the Dirksen and Hart buildings’ wheelchair ramps are too steep.
“A number of areas could be modified” to comply with the additional accessibility requirements of the life-safety code and the ADA, the report notes.
The report also notes a lack of signage to direct disabled people to exits they can use or warn them of exits that are not accessible.
The report also notes that, in the Capitol and Longworth, the Capitol Police have designated the landings of certain stairwells as “places of refuge.” The problem is that “these locations carry greater risk than areas that are more protected because the chimney effect of heat and toxic gases could rapidly overwhelm employees waiting for assistance,” the OoC report says.
The National Fire Prevention Association’s life-safety code sets requirements inside a building to provide adequate, code-compliant areas of refuge.
The report concedes that the old design of the buildings make it hard to find good refuge areas. Two major staging areas in Russell are near freight elevators and are acceptable and properly located. The Hart Building also provides two accessible exit routes.
Each congressional office is responsible for having an evacuation plan for staff.
The Quick2000 smoke hood, which is made for use in the event of airborne chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear threat, could cause a problem for people with breathing disabilities, the report says. The hoods have no exhalation valve, and that creates difficulties for those whose breathing is impaired, for example by asthma.
While this problem was discovered in 2003 and the Capitol Police modified their procedure to include masks with respirators for people who need them, some people without visible disabilities hesitate to “self-identify” and alert the necessary individuals, according to Hilary Styron, director, emergency preparedness initiative, at the National Organization on Disability (NOD).
The examination of emergency procedures was triggered by the May 11 evacuation of the Capitol and White House when a light aircraft crossed into the highly restricted Washington Air Defense Identification Zone.
The House Administration Committee has held two hearings that addressed the safety and emergency evacuations of people with disabilities, one of them entirely on that subject.
Styron, who testified at the second hearing, said she met and talked with the House Administration Committee staff twice after the hearing, once in August and once last week.
“The members of the committee are very committed to moving things forward,” she said.
Styron said she looks forward reviewing the OoC report and comparing what officials there believe needs to be done with the NOD recommendations.
Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), who uses a wheelchair and testified at the July 28 hearing, told The Hill a day earlier, “There are only two ways in and out of the chamber. There is no quick way out of there.”
Temporary pullout ramps could help in an emergency, but a permanent ramp opposite the Speaker’s rostrum would be better, he said.
“I have trouble believing some kind of temporary solution is going to work when seconds count,” he said. “I’ve seen how quickly people leave when the alarm bells sound.”
When there is no emergency, the House side of the Capitol campus is “fairly good,” he said, despite the lack of exits in the chamber. Committee rooms are the least accessible part of the House side for a member with a disability, he said, but he added that the Armed Services Committee, of which he is a member, has made proper accommodations.
The last disability-accommodation report released in 2002 said most of the Capitol complex complied with the ADA. But it noted some of the same structural barriers cited in the unreleased OoC report.
While 91 percent of the hazards identified in the OoC report for the 108th Congress were fixed as they were identified, the OoC declined to comment whether any of these had to do with ADA compliance.