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This is the time of year when winter weather can make for a difficult commute, so Federal employees and the public in the Washington, D.C. area look to OPM’s website, mobile app , and social media platforms to check whether we’ve made a change in the operating status.
What you see is the final decision – whether to close, delay arrival, or offer Federal employees unscheduled leave and telework. But what you don’t see is what happens behind the scenes in the hours before a status decision is made. That’s what I want to tell you about.
A hardworking team of people from OPM, across the Federal government, and our local partners work extremely long hours to look out for our safety. As events unfold, this team comes together to evaluate whether we need to consider an operating status change.
Heading OPM’s operating status team is OPM’s Director of Facilities, Security and Emergency Management. He and his team monitor the weather, traffic conditions, and any alerts 24-hours a day. Whenever they believe we might need to make an operating status decision, they consult with our partners at the National Weather Service; local departments of transportation in D.C., Maryland and Virginia; public transit, including WMATA and Amtrak, law enforcement; school districts, and local governments to make sure we have all of the information we need to make a well-informed decision.
As a potential storm gets close, we hold a conference call to discuss impacts to the region and potential options. The team comes to our decision call with fresh information from the Council of Governments, a group of more than 200 people who meet and share the most up-to-date information on the forecast, road conditions, public transportation, schools, and more.
OPM’s emergency management director takes that information, looks at how we have handled similar situations in the past, and makes a recommendation to the team and to me. Often, the decision is not clear-cut, given the uncertainty of all the factors we have to consider. We work from information we know could change, but we are committed to making a call no later than 4 a.m., in time for commuters to plan their day. If we are confident in a forecast, we will make the decision sooner – if possible, the night before.
As we weigh our options, we look at what flexibilities are needed and how employee safety and the continuity of government operations will be impacted by what we decide. We also consider the large and growing numbers of D.C. employees who can or do telework and the time of day the storm will hit. We look at the expected rate of snowfall and accumulation throughout the Beltway, and how long the storm is expected to last. We factor in WMATA’s status and its needs for staffing as well as what local transportation departments are telling us about how confident they are that they can get the roads ready. It’s a complex process and every event is different.
After taking all the information and input into consideration, it falls to the OPM Director to make the decision on whether to change the status and what to change it to.
Once the decision is made, we immediately get the word out to you on the OPM website, social media, email, and of course through our OPM Alert app.
While we know that the weather doesn’t always pan out as forecast, at OPM we try to make the best decision both to ensure your safety and that the work of the Federal government continues. We take this very seriously and I know this is one of my biggest responsibilities. I promise you that I will always make the decision I think is best to balance our highest priorities.
Now let’s hope for a calm winter season.
Winter officially begins next week. As you may already know, OPM is responsible for deciding when to change the Federal government’s operating status in the Washington, D.C. area, and for getting the word out about any changes.
While we are all hoping for an uneventful winter weather season, I want to make sure all Federal employees know what to do when severe weather hits.
I take many factors into consideration when deciding the status of Federal government operations inside the Beltway. The most important is the safety of the Federal workforce and the surrounding community. Our employees are our most important asset. The second concern is continuity of operations. The government never really closes. Emergency response personnel and teleworkers keep our operations going even when employees can’t physically get to work.
During a live-streamed event earlier today, Dean Hunter, OPM's Director of Facilities, Security and Contracting, explained the decision-making process, and Brenda Roberts, OPM’s Deputy Associate Director of Pay & Leave, gave an overview of the policy that informs those decisions.
Brenda also told us about the change to this year’s policy. OPM is revising an outdated leave practice of allowing employees who are already scheduled to be on paid leave when the Federal government closes to take excused absences. With the change, if Federal offices close, employees who are on pre-approved leave remain on leave, rather than switching to an “excused absence” status.
We made this change to take into consideration today’s workplace flexibilities. With the increasing use of telework to help us assure continuity of operations, it’s now obsolete to provide excused absences for those employees already scheduled to be on leave when an emergency hits.
We had two guests with us at today’s webcast. Chris Strong, Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service, helped us understand how the weather service informs OPM about upcoming storms and the difficulties in predicting those weather events.
We were also joined by Caroline Laurin, deputy chief spokesperson for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). Because so many Federal employees take public transportation to work, it’s crucial for all of us to know the status of trains and buses by consulting with WMATA. The authority relies on our decisions to let them know how many crews, trains, and buses are needed for rush hour commutes during difficult weather. Caroline stressed how important it is that employees comply with OPM’s status decisions.
We need to be prepared for weather and unexpected emergencies all year round. It is important that agencies and their employees know their personnel designations, telework policies, and emergency preparedness plans before an event occurs. The past few years have taught us that our dismissal and closure procedures extend beyond winter weather emergencies and can be necessary at any time.
We want to make sure that Federal workers stay safe and that we continue to serve the American people even during times of difficult weather events. And the best way to make sure that happens is for everyone to be informed.
So, please take a few minutes to read the updated Dismissal and Closure Guide on the OPM website. And if you didn't get a chance to tune into the panel discussion, it's available on our YouTube channel.
Last May, OPM launched the OPM Alert mobile app that allows users to find out in a moment’s notice if the status of the Federal government in the Washington, DC area changes. The app has been downloaded more than 240,000 times.
Now we are pleased to announce an update that will allow many more Federal employees and military personnel access to it. Those that have been unable to download it due to security restrictions on their work devices now have an appropriate download available through OPM’s website. Users must have a .gov, .mil, or si.edu email address to register and download the mobile app package.
OPM’s dismissal and closure guidance covers any natural disaster or event that disrupts commuting in the Washington, D.C. area. This includes not only snow and ice storms, but earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes or other special events that may occur during the year. Whenever these emergencies unfold, OPM is committed to promoting the continuity of operations and ensuring the safety of its workforce.
The OPM Alert mobile app is a fantastic resource and tool for employees in the DC area to keep up-to-date on status changes. It is customizable based on the alerts you want to receive and features an archive of past announcements. You can download the app through the Apple, Google Play, Windows, and Blackberry App World stores.
April 30 is America’s PrepareAthon! National Day of Action. OPM is a national partner in this nationwide, community-based campaign to increase emergency preparedness and resilience.
As part of our support for the PrepareAthon, OPM will conduct a shelter-in-place exercise, designed to be activated during a tornado or dangerous wind and rain storm. The exercise gets us away from windows and other unsafe areas and may require us to go to the upper or lower parts of the building. It is also a part of our Dismissal and Closure Guide and is an important element of our toolkit for keeping employees safe while they are at work.
OPM will be one of many workplaces – as well as individual homes and communities – that will use tomorrow to practice for worst-case scenarios. These situations can be daunting. Our default often is not to think about such possibilities at all. But America’s PrepareAthon! emphasizes that we need to take the time to prepare now so that emergencies don’t catch us off guard.
There’s a lot to consider when preparing for an emergency. Take a moment to think about it. What’s your preparedness quotient? Do you pay attention to community alerts or warning systems? Do you have a preparedness plan? Have you talked about and practiced that plan with your family? Do you know what hazards are most likely to happen in your area?
Knowing what to do before, during and after an emergency is a critical part of being prepared and may make all the difference when seconds count. These are just a few of the things to consider during tomorrow’s Day of Action.
Whether you’re participating in a drill, crafting a plan with your family, or attending a community awareness event, be sure to take a few moments tomorrow to get prepared. If you’re here at OPM Headquarters, take a minute to review Occupant Emergency Plan. And everyone should check out the resources on ready.gov.
As this past winter taught us, when we’re prepared we can stay safe and work together to continue serving the American people, no matter the circumstances.
It’s officially spring and the weather is slowly edging away from what’s been an unusually harsh winter season. We’ve had one major storm after another and lots of little ones in between. We’ve all made good use of our shovels, ice scrapers, coats, hats and gloves.
At Dulles Airport, one of the major measuring centers, the National Weather Service measured 52.8 inches of snow for this winter, 30 inches more than the seasonal average. This is likely a winter we’ll be telling stories about for many years to come.
Wherever I go, people always ask me about our Dismissal and Closure status. Our social media channels start getting busy with questions and comments days before a storm is ready to hit!
What many people don’t realize is that we prepare all year round for these kinds of events. Whether it’s an unexpectedly heavy winter weather season, an earthquake in August, or a Superstorm in October, we do all we can to make sure we are prepared for anything. Decisions may be hard and not always popular, but because we prepare, we barely miss a beat.
We consult throughout the year with our partners in this effort – the Council of Governments, the National Weather Service and transportation departments throughout the National Capital Area.
OPM’s guidance covers any natural disaster or event that disrupts commuting in the DC area. This includes not only snow and ice, but earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes or other special events that may occur during the year. Whenever these emergencies occur, OPM is committed to promoting the continuity of operations and ensuring the safety of its workforce.
One of the strongest tools we have is telework. During emergencies, teleworking is often the best option for continuity of operations. That’s why so much of our Dismissal and Closure guide helps agencies and employees understand their options and flexibilities.
We want to make sure that as much as possible, the weather doesn’t keep the Federal workforce from providing excellent service to the American people.
The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 helps us do that. The Act requires agencies to incorporate telework into their continuity of operation plans. OPM used the Act as an opportunity to highlight telework in our emergency announcements. We have been working with agencies to increase the use of telework, both regularly and during emergencies.
That effort is paying off. Federal employees are teleworking at an all-time high across the country. In the DC area, according to the Employee Viewpoint Survey, 70 percent of employees are telework eligible. Telework is the best option to keep the Federal Government working during the emergencies that prevent normal government operations.
Moreover, new technologies allow Federal employees to work from home, and I know most of you find ways to make up your work at no cost to the Federal government. As such, there is no good way for us to calculate with any accuracy the cost of closing Federal government building.
Each year, OPM reviews its guidance and discusses lessons learned with its interagency working group and labor unions. These discussions ensure that OPM’s announcements reflect the current needs of the Federal workforce. Over the past several years, we’ve worked unscheduled leave and telework into nearly all of our status options so that you have the flexibility to make the right decision for you and your family.
We follow up our consultations and engagement with the interagency and union stakeholders with videos, guidance, and other materials to help inform Federal employees. Througout the year, we also encourage Federal workers to have preparedness conversations with their supervisors and agency leaders. And when in doubt, FEMA’s www.ready.gov is the one stop shop for general preparedness tips and information.
Now that we’ve (hopefully) seen our last snow of the season, let’s keep the conversation going. Talk to your employees, to your supervisor, and to your families about the plans that work for you. Let’s all think about this winter and learn from it. I know that together we’ll be ready for the next emergency that comes our way. After all, hurricane season is right around the corner.
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