Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney
Columnist

Stop sneering and support feds’ snow policy

We’ve all enjoyed snickering at those pathetic federal bureaucrats for suggesting that Washington area workers ought to just stay in their offices in a snowstorm or other emergency. Now can we please be adults and acknowledge that the bureaucrats’ approach is entirely correct?

Let’s go further and think seriously about how we, the public, can help make the plan succeed.

The alternative is to resign ourselves to the current reality that an unexpected workday snowstorm — or, do note, a terrorist attack — triggers instant gridlock on roads and rail that makes everything worse for everybody.

Raise your hand if that’s a problem you want to perpetuate. No one? As I expected. So let’s put on our big-kid pants, Washingtonians, and work with the authorities on this one.

Here’s the background. In an admirable effort to reduce congestion in an emergency, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management has drafted new guidelines for when to shut federal offices.

The initial reaction has mostly been mocking. But it’s also focused on just one part of the plan, called “shelter in place.” Once snow hits, workers are asked to stay in the office until roads and Metro are capable of handling the load.

It’s easy to make fun. Will there be cots and free coffee while we wait out the storm? Who’s going to heed the OPM, anyway, when we’re in a hurry to get home?

Here’s the rest of the story. The other parts of the plan are designed as much as possible to prevent sheltering in place by ensuring that workers are already home when the snow falls.

For example, OPM will encourage more workers at more agencies to telework when it’s likely to snow. It will make decisions earlier than in the past on whether to close federal offices or authorize unscheduled leave and unscheduled telework. Ideally, it’ll decide the afternoon or evening before the day of the event.

“How do you get everybody out of the city? Don’t bring them in in the first place,” Dean Hunter, OPM’s emergency management chief, said in an interview.

Also, and this is crucial, when an unexpected storm threatens to materialize during a workday, OPM will strongly urge people to leave by a certain hour so as to arrive home before trouble starts. Only people who remained past the deadline would then be encouraged to stay until snow crews have had time to salt and plow. The wait would typically be a few hours.

Here’s where it’s vital for the public to buy into the plan. The OPM’s orders to leave early or stay at work would not be mandatory. So anybody who really needed to keep working or leave to pick up kids would be free to do so.

If too many people ignore the plan, then it’s sure to fail. But if just half the workers could be persuaded to respect the recommendations, then it could translate into huge relief for the commute.

“Part of this is really the need for public education,” Hunter said. “We’ll have limited success if we can’t educate people and have them internalize it. It takes some individual responsibility, really, for their own safety and security.”

The OPM guidelines, first reported Wednesday, are likely to be issued formally within weeks after final talks with other agencies. They are part of a larger Washington area snow plan, which I criticized just 10 days ago for being too modest in size.

I remain concerned that the region is investing too little and remains too fragmented to cope with the problem.

But now that I see how much the federal government is involved, I’m more optimistic. The feds employ 300,000 people in our region, and many local governments and private employers follow OPM’s lead in making dismissal decisions.

“This is a big deal that the largest employer in the region is realizing that they have a key role and the default, which has been everybody go home, is absolutely wrong,” said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), a representative on the region’s emergency preparedness committee.

Mendelson’s support is noteworthy, because he has been one of the most outspoken critics of the region’s emergency planning.

He and others credited OPM Director John Berry for taking the initiative. Berry, who grew up in Montgomery County, has a lifetime of experience with the region’s snow paralysis.

“I give Director Berry credit for getting out front and saying, ‘We need to do better than what we’ve done,’” said Charlie Bernhardt, a labor relations specialist at the American Federation of Government Employees.

For once, the authorities seem to be trying something that could make a difference to make our lives easier in a snowfall and safer in a terrorist attack. We ought to set aside our cynicism and do what we can to make it work.

 
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