GSA chief praises employees for reaction to attacks

Top leaders at the General Services Administration, recent arrivals to federal service from the private sector, on Wednesday expressed deep appreciation for the commitment of their new colleagues in government for their help in making GSA's response to last week's terrorist attacks swift and efficient. The response of GSA's employees was "quick, competent and absolutely heroic," Administrator Stephen A. Perry told GovExec.com. F. Joseph Moravec, commissioner of the Public Buildings Service, remarked on how proud he was to be associated with people performing at peak levels under huge stress and motivated, it seemed to him, by love of country. GSA was prepared with quick-reaction disaster recovery plans that "actually worked," said Perry, even though he and other top agency leaders, including Moravec; Sandra N. Bates, commissioner of the Federal Technology Service; Donna D. Bennett, commissioner of the Federal Supply Service; and Brian A. Jackson, Perry's chief of staff, were in Philadelphia when the attacks took place. Like many other federal travelers, Perry had a tough time getting back to headquarters; he hopped on a southbound train at 10 a.m., but was informed in Wilmington, Del., that the train would go no further because Union Station in Washington had been closed. Perry and Jackson walked to a police station and eventually were driven back to Washington, arriving at 5 p.m. Meanwhile, Bates, Moravec and Bennett made their way to GSA's Region 3 headquarters in Philadelphia, where they were able to establish communications with their staffs both in Washington and New York. GSA has about 400 people in New York City, but controls space for many thousands more. Some 2,800 federal workers were evacuated from World Trade Center Buildings 6 and 7, which collapsed. Another 25,000 were evacuated from four other nearby office buildings-26 Federal Plaza, 290 Broadway, and the two U.S. courthouses at 40 Centre St. and 500 Pearl St. GSA plans to lease some 1.5 million square feet of office space for displaced agencies in New York and 850,000 square feet for displaced Pentagon employees. GSA personnel, including officers from the Federal Protective Service, figured importantly in sometimes-dangerous evacuation work. Some helped guide people out of the burning towers, while others swept through the endangered Buildings 6 and 7. There were tales of heroism: as one Federal Protective Service officer helped with evacuation of one of the towers, he was struck by falling debris that broke his arm and crushed and killed a man next to him. A short time later, his arm set, he was back on the job. GSA also provided mobile command centers from its Washington and Atlanta regions that figured importantly in communications for other agencies, including the FBI, as they responded to the World Trade Center disaster. In New York early Friday morning, three days after the attack, Moravec described a GSA "war room" scene in lower Manhattan, with people from the buildings, technology and supply services offices working side by side in makeshift quarters. He went from there to West 26th Street, to assist in rapid-fire negotiation of a seven-year lease for space needed to house the former occupants of Buildings 6 and 7, including the Customs Service, the Secret Service, the IRS, Defense agencies and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The big blocks of space agencies needed were available, it turned out, in part because of vacancies caused by the collapse of dot-com start-ups earlier this year, Moravec said. Since the government wasn't in competition with relatively small private-sector companies that lost space in the disaster, and thus was able to negotiate leases ranging up to seven years at reasonable rates. Equipping the offices with furniture, workstations, telephones and computers was another big job, undertaken by the supply and telecommunications services. Bates said that FTS made 500 computers available to agencies within two days of the attack. Many vendors offered to divert their resources to assist in the government's recovery, she said. Every GSA region reported that some employees were ready to leave their jobs to come to New York and Washington to assist in the search and rescue missions. "Everyone at GSA is doing something to contribute to this effort," Bates said. FTS, which manages many agencies' telecommunications contracts and services, faced a crippled telecommunications infrastructure in New York. All telecom carriers sustained serious damage in the attacks, particularly Verizon, which had its central communications center at 2 World Trade Center. Some carriers set up makeshift antennae on buildings and strung cable between rooftops to get communications back online. Bates said FTS now faces a "phased process" of trying to get some telecom service back into each federal building in New York as soon as possible. In addition, the agency must get other data services up and running. It will be some time before that is accomplished, she added.

The Federal Supply Service worked Tuesday to procure 100 vehicles for the recovery effort, Bennett said. The agency notified its Burlington, N.J. depot to go on a 24-hour work schedule to meet agencies' needs for furniture, office supplies and all the business necessities agencies take for granted. In addition, FSS contacted banks to increase the credit card limits for federal employees on travel who were left stranded by the complete shutdown of domestic air travel. The GSA schedules, a series of pre-arranged contracts all agencies can use to buy specific products, were used heavily, Bennett said. In some cases, procurements were made in the morning and products were delivered the same day, Perry said.

FSS also sent protective firefighting clothing from Stockton, Calif., to aid rescuers. Bennett said inventory managers monitored their supply stockpiles by the hour to ensure that they weren't depleted.

Perry sees the outlines of improved service emerging from GSA's experience. "We were doing in three days what it usually takes three months to do," he said.

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