One member of the despised federal bureaucracy locked out of work this week is Air Force energy expert Kevin Geiss of Alexandria. He found ways to save the government more than $1 billion in 2012 and just wants to get back to the office to save even more.
Another is fire protection engineer Dan Madrzykowski of Damascus. His furlough meant missing a meeting Wednesday in Fairfax of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, where he was to help launch a project to publicize new research on saving firefighters’ lives.
Way to go, Washington politicians. Heaven knows it’s crucial to prevent such people from doing their jobs.
Geiss and Madrzykowski are among a select group of government employees scheduled to be honored at a gala Thursday evening with prestigious “Sammie” awards from the Partnership for Public Service.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan group will distribute the medals for outstanding accomplishments by civil servants at a time when much of the civil service is on unrequested and possibly unpaid leave. Four individuals among the 16 to be honored are on furlough.
The discordant timing illustrates the contrast between the valuable work done by many federal employees and our leaders’ willingness to sacrifice them in a partisan struggle.
It also highlights the disdain with which much of the country views the government workforce. To glimpse the hostility, read the anonymous comments posted at the end of Web stories about the shutdown.
“It will be tough getting a tee time at the golf course today, or a parking spot at the malls, because the poor government workers, already overpaid, will be taking a paid day(s) off, courtesy of the US taxpayers,” one said.
“What this ‘shutdown’ will expose is precisely the vast amount of waste and useless government spending,” said another.
Now compare that perception with the real-life behavior of Geiss and Madrzykowski.
When his furlough began Tuesday, Geiss caught up on volunteer work he does as a squadron commander for the Civil Air Patrol. He devotes about 20 hours a week to search-and-rescue missions, air defense training and cadet programs.
Still, he’s eager to return to his day job as deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for energy. His team has achieved huge savings by using more alternative fuels, reducing fuel borne by transport aircraft and other steps. Sequestration already cost him six days this year.
“My main frustration is I am prevented from serving my country. That’s why I became a government employee, and that’s why I look forward to getting back,” said Geiss, 46, who wanted to join the Marines at age 16 but had to wait until he was old enough.
He was diplomatic when I asked about the vitriol directed at federal employees.
“I would respond by pointing to the accomplishments that we have,” Geiss said. “I believe what we do in our office is meaningful.”
Madrzykowski, 54, who works at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, has used his furlough to work on a chapter he volunteered to write for the Society of Fire Protection Engineers handbook.
He’s unhappy that the partial shutdown is interrupting the flow of vital safety information to firefighters. He had to turn off his BlackBerry, which he uses at all hours to reply to questions e-mailed from around the world.
Madrzykowki’s research, based on more than two decades of burning down buildings and studying what happens, has led to radical improvements in firefighting.
He’s found that fires today are hotter than in the past, because more home furnishings are made from plastics. That means firefighters need to pour water on fires more quickly than previously understood, before rushing in to rescue people.
“I didn’t study politics. I’m not sure exactly what’s going on up there on Capitol Hill,” Madrzykowski said. “I do understand heat transfer and fluid flow, and what it takes to put a fire out. That’s my specialty, and I just hope we can get back to doing that soon.”
Madrzykowski is also uneasy about the long-term impact of shrinking the government. Budget pressures have chopped his staff from 12 to six in three years. Two young people left his office in June for the private sector.
“You’ve got cost-of-living freezes, the uncertainty of furloughs. It’s hard to attract people. For me, that’s really the long-term concern,” he said.
That worry will linger long after the current shutdown is forgotten.
Meanwhile, let’s end the self-defeating gamesmanship and send our public employees back to work.
For more stories about the Service to America medals, including a photo gallery of the winners and finalists, visit washingtonpost.com/
leadership. I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.