Saturday, January 17, 2009

Congress unprepared for Jan. 20 emergency

By Jordy Yager

Many lawmakers do not know how to use a critical communications system in the event of an emergency during President-elect Obama’s Inauguration.

Despite months of security planning for the Inauguration by various government agencies, a White House-directed phone service that is supposed to be given to every lawmaker for emergency use remains a mystery to many members of Congress.

The chairman of the House Administration Committee, which oversees the security of all House members and staff, has never seen or heard of the tool. “I don’t know anything about it,” said Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.). “I’m definitely going to find out, though.”

Brady is far from alone. Eight lawmakers The Hill spoke to on Wednesday said they either were not sure of or did not have the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS) card, which gives users priority telephone access during emergencies, when traditional phone lines may be disconnected or flooded with calls.

“I don’t know anything about that,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a committee chairman who has served in the House for nearly 30 years.

Five other members said they had and were familiar with the card, but some of them were unsure how to use it.

The GETS card is one of several emergency preparedness measures taken by the House and Senate sergeants at arms and the House Chief Administrative Office (CAO) to ensure the safety of lawmakers. Lawmakers also are given a card giving them instructions on how to evacuate the Capitol in the event of an emergency.

Lawmakers seem more familiar with that card, as several who were unfamiliar with the GETS knew about the evacuation card.

Still, knowledge of the GETS card could be particularly important on Jan. 20, when most representatives of all three branches of government attend the first black president’s Inauguration.

Without the card, lawmakers might be unable to communicate with emergency personnel to ensure their own safety and the safety of their staffs and any visitors to the Inauguration who are under their care.

They might also be unable to take part in any response to a terrorist attack because of the likelihood that traditional communications lines would be overloaded.

In the event of an emergency, phone service is apt to be interrupted or even inaccessible because of the high volume of people trying to call friends, family and emergency personnel. The GETS system allows for users to supersede this congestion by using an elevated communication highway of sorts.

“GETS is necessary because of the increasing reliance on telecommunications … Recent events have shown that natural disasters, power outages, fiber cable cuts and software problems can cripple the telephone services of entire regions,” reads the GETS website.

On Sept. 11, 2001, lawmakers had major difficulties making calls to their district offices, and then-Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee at the time, had trouble communicating with CIA officials. In the following years, requests for GETS cards surged.

The fact that many lawmakers are unfamiliar with the system isn’t new. A year after the Sept. 11 attacks, then-House Chief Administrative Officer James Eagen testified to Congress that GETS cards had been delivered to all members. But despite that assertion, The Hill in 2006 found that dozens — if not hundreds — of legislators did not have GETS cards in their wallets.

In 2006, then-Sen. Obama told The Hill he did not have a GETS card and asked one of his aides to secure one for him.

The office of the Senate sergeant at arms said it ensures that lawmakers know about the GETS cards.

“We instruct them on what it’s used for, which is for a means of communication if the regular phone system is not available, and whether they choose to use that as their primary [emergency measure] or not is up to them,” said Kimball Winn, the chief information officer for the Senate sergeant at arms.

The CAO declined to comment for this story, and the office of the House sergeant at arms did not return calls.

Still, many lawmakers seem unaware of the cards. Of five members The Hill spoke with who had a GETS card, none could find it in their wallets, and several did not know how to use it, though they said they received instructions at one point.

Surprisingly, members who have been on Capitol Hill for more than 10 years, like Frank and former presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), were most unsure of the GETS system.

“I don’t know anything about it,” said Paul at first. “Oh, they might have sent it to me and if they did, I didn’t pay any attention to it.”

Freshman members like Rep. Glenn Nye (D-Va.) and more junior members like Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), by contrast, said they have been instructed on how to use the calling service and been issued cards with the number.

“I have the card and have had it ever since I was elected,” Dent said. “I keep it in my wallet but I’ve never had to use it.”

With some officials estimating more than 4 million people will attend the Inauguration — the first presidential transfer of power since the United States has been at war and the first since the 2001 terrorist attacks — security officials have taken above-normal measures to ensure the safety of the public and politicians. This transition is likely to leave the country and D.C. more prone to an attack than usual, according to a private report obtained by The Hill last week.

Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), who chairs the Capitol Security subcommittee, said he had the card but did not know anything about it.

“I was [instructed how to use it] but I don’t remember what it was because I’ve got a cell phone,” said Capuano, who added that he is not very concerned about what he would do in the event of an emergency.

“I’m one member of Congress, so guess what? The world will go on without me.”