Heard on the Hill

Staffers gripe about lack of communication during Capitol lockdown

House sergeant-at-arms acknowledges missteps regarding suspicious aircraft incident

Staffers are criticizing the lack of response from the Capitol Police amid Tuesday’s lockdown (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo)

After reports of a possible aircraft in restricted airspace over Washington on Tuesday, U.S. Capitol Police halted access to Capitol grounds. But a lack of communication left staffers confused and in the dark.

Although the lockdown lasted nearly 50 minutes and was “cleared without incident,” according to a Capitol Police statement, several staffers relied on social media and word of mouth for information.

One Senate Democratic aide learned about the lockdown from a tweet from NBC News and emails from colleagues. “There was never an all-staff email alerting us to the situation,” the staffer told HOH.

A House Democratic aide described the communication from Capitol Police as “terrible.”

“No alerts, no info. I got my info from Twitter,” the staffer said. “Dem chiefs really pissed.”

Another Democratic House staffer said employees didn’t hear much from the Capitol Police during the lockdown.

“It’s crazy that we get a dozen emails when someone forgets a backpack in the [Capitol Visitor Center], but we didn’t hear anything in response to this incident while it was happening,” the aide said.

“Finding out through Twitter was not ideal,” said an aide for a Republican senator. “The weird thing is, Capitol Police did not tell us what was happening.”

Meanwhile, Democratic and Republican chiefs of staff sent a letter Tuesday to Capitol Police Chief Steven A. Sund, calling for answers on the “communication failures of this morning.”

They asked about the current procedure for incident alerts on Capitol grounds; the protocol that triggers the incident alert system; and the protocol for informing those in place at entry points about the incident.

“There were no corresponding alerts sent via email, text, PC pop-up window, audible alarm, siren, or verbal announcement to staff,” the chiefs wrote, calling it “highly problematic.”

According to the letter, around 8:40a.m. Tuesday, staffers entering the Capitol complex were denied entry and were told of an aircraft incident that was designated “Air Con Orange,” the threat level assigned for a suspicious aircraft in violation of designated airspace.

The Capitol Police said in a statement that “in an abundance of caution, the USCP began monitoring the situation for any potential threats, and as a result, access to Capitol Complex buildings was restricted for a short time.” 

The lockdown was lifted at 9:12 a.m., according to the Capitol Police. 

At 10:35 a.m., an email went out to senior staff on behalf of Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael C. Stenger that reiterated the statement provided by the Capitol Police and urged recipients to share the SAA notice with staff not included in the email.

“If the incident had escalated requiring staff to take action, USCP was prepared to send out the appropriate alert messages,” Stenger wrote.

Later Tuesday afternoon, an email to staff from House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul D. Irving acknowledged that communication “must be improved.”

“My office and the USCP are working to further refine communication protocols and alert system during significant events,” Irving wrote.

A spokeswoman for the Capitol Police did not respond for a request for comment.

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