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In Case Of Fire

Nearly everyone has been in a building with red boxes in the hallways that said “In Case of Fire Pull Alarm.” When a building is occupied this is a very efficient system for notifying the people in the building, and usually the local fire department, that there is a problem.

About the only thing that prevents the system from working is if someone sees a fire and decides that rather than using the fire alarm they will see if they can handle the problem themselves.

Using the Pull boxes is part of the “standard operating procedure” [SOP] for that building. That is what people are taught to do.

After the 1983 scandal, Congress made a number of changes designed to prevent this from happening again. The pages were put in a dormitory and required to sign in and out. An oversight group, the Page Board, was created to deal with the program. Procedures were established to provide Congress with the low-cost labor of pages and the pages with a good resume item for later life while providing the oversight needed for a group of 16-year-old high school juniors.

The one weakness in the system is the need for the people in charge to be willing to follow the procedures and “Pull the Handle.”

If you follow the trail you can see that Rep. Alexander followed the procedure. A constituent contacted him with a problem related to his service as a page, and Rep. Alexander contacted the chairman of the Page Board, Rep. Shimkus. Instead of pulling the “Handle”, Shimkus decided to “deal with the problem” on his own.

Shimkus is a West Point graduate, a former Army officer and teacher, but he decided there was no need to follow the SOP, he would just talk to Foley after talking to the Clerk of House.

There are several problems with what Shimkus did which demonstrate why there is a procedure in place. Without some type of investigation how did Shimkus know the allegations were true? Investigations can clear as well as convict and failing to conduct an investigation to determine the truth puts the organization at risk, as has happened in this case. Shimkus had no real authority to talk to Foley; Foley had more seniority in the House than Shimkus, so Foley had no reason to be concerned. Shimkus had no power to back his decision and no investigation to back his conclusion. What Shimkus did was give Foley months to cover his tracks, if he had been so inclined.

Shimkus dealt with this as a political problem, not a problem with the page program, and that should be obvious to anyone who has ever worked in a large organization. There is the devil to pay trying to track notifications and their timing because everything was done verbally. The major reason for pages is to move paper around the Capitol. Congress lives on paper. The only paper involved in this are the e-mails sent by the page. The only reason for not generating paper is that no one wanted a record. How likely is it that the procedure for handling complaints by or about pages doesn’t require at least a memorandum to be written?

Hastert apparently contacted Nancy Pelosi about having former FBI director Louis Freeh look at the page issue. Hastert claims that Ms. Pelosi “vetoed” the decision. Ms. Pelosi’s office said she wasn’t consulted, she was notified of a decision already made, and she wouldn’t endorse it. You can click on the link for Freeh to be reminded why Louis Freeh is a rather odd choice to investigate anything, especially anything that involves computers.

I feel sorry for Rep. Shirley Moore Capito, the other Republican on the Page Board. The Speaker keeps talking about the Page Board making decisions, which ties her to those decisions, while she was left uninformed by Shimkus’s arrogance.

There is no point in revising the procedures for pages. The problem wasn’t with the procedures; the problem was the decision to ignore the procedures because of partisan considerations. If you can’t convince people to “pull the handle in case of fire”, changing the color of the boxes isn’t going to help.


1 Boone { 10.06.06 at 11:45 am }

Excellent post and excellent thoughts. There truely isn’t anything wrong with the system which was in place. As you stated, the system or the S.O.P. was not followed. It doesn’t matter what the facts may be however. We live in a percieved perception society. It doesn’t matter what the truth of the matter is. In Washington, perception is the only reality. Now there will be typical knee-jerk reaction by the house in an effort to convince the public that they are fixing the problem. The problem, however, is them. They cartainly will never fix that problem.

2 Bryan { 10.06.06 at 12:21 pm }

It isn’t just Washington, the same problem can be found in every large organization. If people ignore the procedures, what is the point in having them?

Perception is becoming the “new reality,” with more money being spent on PR than R&D by most institutions. In politics and business it isn’t the “value of the product” it’s the success of the marketing campaign that determines the winners.