People with disabilities told to wait at stairs in an evacuation

Capitol Police have no specific procedures to assist in the evacuation of disabled staffers and visitors, according to a Capitol Police spokesman.

“We are there to offer our assistance to get them safely out of the building,” said Michael Lauer, a spokesman for the Capitol Police. “It is the responsibility of each employing office to account for their employees.”

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Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) is concerned about the lack of exits out of the House chamber.

Lauer added that although the police are not specifically trained to evacuate people with disabilities, depending on the situation, the police assist them or facilitate communication with the D.C. Fire Department or other city agencies more qualified to help.

“Each evacuation is different,” Lauer said. “Not every one is a mad dash and panic.”

In “Emergency Evacuation Procedures,” a brochure distributed to staffs by the Capitol Police that was last updated in March 2002, “persons needing assistance” are advised to find the nearest stairway “indicated on the map as a staging area … when the stairwell is cleared of occupants enter and wait for further instructions and/or assistance by the U.S, Capitol Police.”

Jeff Rosen, general counsel and director of policy at the National Council on Disability (NCD), said that, although there may be a plan on paper, “the implementation is always poor.”

“This is not unique. [Individuals] are not trained, [evacuation plans] are not rehearsed” in most offices, he said.

Rosen added, “Congress is a highly visible target. This is not a place to diminish the importance of this issue.”

A review of the policies of evacuating visitors and staff members with disabilities could be one of the issues reviewed by the House Administration Committee in a hearing tentatively set for June 9, according to Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the committee.

“The focus of this hearing is to discuss how we can put to use what was learned in this last evacuation so we can continue to strengthen the process in the event of similar future situations,” Walsh said in an e-mail.

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), who uses a wheelchair, told The Hill that overall the evacuation went well and he was out of the building “pretty quickly” but that he is concerned about the lack of exits from the chamber itself.

“I only have one or two exits out of the House chamber,” he said, because of the lack of ramps.

Langevin said he has spoken to the House sergeant at arms, Bill Livingood, about the problem, and members of Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) office are working with him to find a solution. During last month’s evacuation, he took an elevator down to the first floor and exited. If he could not use an elevator, Langevin said, the House was equipped with an evacuation chair that would allow him to get down the stairs quickly.

Langevin said Livingood and members of the Speaker’s staff had gone through evacuation plans several times with him.

“There are no perfect solutions, but we are getting better,” he said.

The Senate sergeant at arms did not return calls for comment.

Hilary Styron, acting director of the National Organization on Disability’s (NOD) Evacuation Preparedness Initiative, said a set of standard procedures is necessary to get people out of the building quickly and safely.

“If you plan in advance, you are better off,” she said, adding that people with disabilities or their advocates should be involved if a new plan is drawn up.

People with disabilities are commonly left out of “preparedness and planning activities,” according to an April 15 report released by the NCD. The report notes that the term “people with disabilities” does not apply simply to those whose disabilities are apparent. The report defines the term as “people with heart disease, emotional or psychiatric conditions, arthritis, significant allergies, asthma, multiple chemical sensitivities, respiratory conditions and some visual, hearing and cognitive disabilities.”

It cited several instances from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in which people with respiratory difficulties and those in wheelchairs were left behind to wait for emergency assistance as others passed them by. The report also noted that “most of those who had been assigned to help with rescue devices were frightened and fled downstairs.”

Rosen said these plans could be dangerous to people with disabilities because “people are highly mobile” and the individual assigned to assist the person with the disability could be in a different part of the building.

“There has to be a uniform, very accounted-for standard,” he said.

In a separate report, the NOD reported that 22 percent of emergency managers have plans under way that include people with disabilities and 42 percent of “emergency managers” have information for people with disabilities. But only 16 percent offer that information in alternative formats such as closed captioning and Braille.

Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) raised the issue at a House Appropriations Committee hearing May 23, suggesting a review of evacuation procedures for disabled people. One member of his staff, with cerebral palsy, has another person designated to carry him out in an emergency.

The May 11 evacuation of the Capitol complex and the White House were triggered when a light aircraft crossed into the highly restricted Washington Air Defense Identification Zone.