A select group of U.S. Capitol Police have undergone special training to access the miles of utility tunnels underneath the Capitol complex, according to a police spokeswoman.
The spokeswoman, however, would not provide further detail about how the tunnels are protected because of national-security concerns.
“Specific information regarding our capabilities in this area cannot be discussed, as this is a security-related matter,” said the spokeswoman, Sgt. Kimberly Schneider.
The Washington, D.C., fire department, which serves the Capitol campus, also says it is equipped to respond to any emergency involving the tunnels. Alan Etter, a spokesman for the department, said firefighters possess the training and equipment necessary should they need to enter the tunnel system.
“We have just completed training involving the large underground steam tunnels that run throughout the city,” he said. "We have had limited exposure to the tunnels under the Capitol; however, they are the same as the [General Services Administration] tunnels."
The comments came in response to questions about what the U.S. Capitol Police are doing to secure the tunnels.
Ten Architect of the Capitol employees who work in the Capitol Power Plant tunnels asserted that there is no police presence in the underground tunnels in a letter sent to four members of Congress nearly two weeks ago.
The tunnels provide steam to heat and cool the Capitol campus and run from the Capitol Power Plant to the House and Senate office buildings, the Capitol and other, surrounding buildings.
The letter contends that the police are not permitted to patrol the tunnels because of their dangerous conditions, which include crumbling concrete that could fall at any time and large amounts of carcinogenic asbestos.
“The United States Capitol Police has made the entire tunnel system off limits to their staff because of the safety conditions as well as the lack of communication because phones and radios do not work in the tunnels,” the workers wrote.
When asked about the concerns raised in the letter, the police spokeswoman said only that some members of the force have undergone special training and that the training allows them to access the tunnel system. Rank-and-file officers, however, are forbidden from entering utility tunnels because of the hazardous conditions.
In the letter, the workers said that the police policy presents a security problem.
“This should be a real concern to the Congress and Senate as all buildings on the complex can be entered through the steam tunnels,” they wrote. “Realize that it is on a regular basis [that] we see people in the tunnels that we don’t know why they are down there.”
Citing documents received from the police, the letter adds: “The Capitol police not only won’t go down there [but] they stated ‘We won’t let our dogs down.’”
Safety precautions regarding the tunnels have been taken in the past for special events, according to Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol (AoC), the office responsible for managing the buildings and utilities on the Capitol campus. To prepare for inaugurations or State of the Union speeches, manholes are sealed to prevent unauthorized entry.
“After Sept. 11, 2001, there was more emphasis on securing [the tunnels] for security purposes,” Malecki said. “The AoC has started replacing the old hatches with new ones that have emergency-release features that secure the hatches from the outside, but allow egress from inside the tunnels in an emergency.”
D.C. firefighters already use self-contained breathing apparatuses, or breathing masks, that protect them from asbestos and other particles.