Commerce Department evacuated again by false alarm

The Department of Commerce headquarters in downtown Washington was evacuated Tuesday for the fifth time this month, the latest in a series of disruptions caused by a major renovation project.


Herbert C. Hoover Building (Department of Commerce)

Commerce employees outside the building Tuesday had a fatalistic attitude about the disruptions.

“It’s not the best situation, but people are understanding,” said Mikhail Batkhan, an employee with the department’s Office of Inspector General.

“The lost productivity is what you worry about,” said another employee who did not give his name because he was not authorized to speak. “The unfortunate thing is when you have so many false alarms, people might not pay attention when you have a real emergency.”

“It’s bad. It’s really bad,” said another employee who also declined to be identified. “I’ve been here 15 years, and there have been more alarms this month than there have been in the last 15 years.”

On July 19, an alarm was triggered by construction dust, forcing the building’s evacuation for about an hour. On July 9, a short circuit caused smoke that emptied the building for about 40 minutes. When workers returned, the alarm went off again, causing another short evacuation.

The following day, a similar false alarm forced workers to evacuate again for about five minutes.

Renovation of the eighty-year-old building began in early 2008 and is scheduled to be completed in 2021. The project includes replacing aging machinery, as well as electrical, ventilation and other old systems.

“There has been an increase in the number of false fire alarms that occur during renovation efforts due to the nature of the work being done,” the department said in a statement following the July 19 evacuation. “The department is actively working to put in safeguards that minimize the amount of false fire alarms caused by renovation activities, thereby reducing the number and length of employee evacuations during such alarms.”

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