Quake couldn't stop this agency's 76-year streak

Congress can recess and airlines can cancel flights, but there are some things — such as the Federal Register — that just have to get done regardless of hurricanes, blizzards or earthquakes.

“We have never missed delivering a Federal Register” in the 76 years the Government Printing Office has been producing it, said Assistant Public Printer Jim Bradley.

While the much of the D.C.-area workforce took the afternoon off and federal buildings shut down after the Aug. 23 earthquake that shook the National Capital Region, crews worked overnight in the two-block GPO complex in Washington to get the Federal Register and Congressional Record online and on the presses. Volume 76, No. 164 of the Federal Register for Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011, was online by 6 a.m., and the print edition began delivery an hour after.

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Timing helped with the effort; with Congress out of town for the month, there was not as much to print as there often is. But technology also helped.

“The technology we use today makes this a lot easier,” said Production Manager John Crawford. Fifty years ago, the massive printing plant was using hot metal type and heavy presses to print its daily products. “That’s virtually gone now.”

The old equipment probably would have weathered the 5.8-magnitude quake (the U.S. Geological Survey initially rated the quake at 5.9 on the Richter scale but later downgraded it to 5.8), but getting jobs into production after the mid-afternoon interruption would have taken more people and more time.

The 151-year old GPO still produces more than 2 billion pages of official documents a year, including legislation, letterheads and its big seller, the annual budget. But its products are increasingly going digital. Online databases with state-of-the-art search and retrieval capabilities, passports and smart cards with electronic chips carrying biometric data are among the products now being produced. Today, more than half the documents federal agencies produce are born digital and published to the Web.

This includes the government’s two “daily newspapers,” the Congressional Record and Federal Register, which also are still printed and distributed on paper. Like with a morning newspaper, work on each edition begins the day before publication and is readied for the presses and servers in the afternoon. The Federal Register usually is online by 6:30 a.m., shortly before the Congressional Record, with distribution of printed editions following an hour or two later.

Much of the Federal Register was ready for the presses and “we were halfway through on the electronic side to having it ready,” when the quake hit shortly before 2 p.m. and GPO’s old industrial buildings along North Capitol Street were evacuated, Crawford said. Employees were allowed back in around 3:30 p.m., after initial inspections found no problems, but only an emergency crew of about 100 people from the second shift went back to work.

“The least of our problems was getting the employees in,” Bradley said. They were ready to work but, because of concerns about aftershocks, they kept the staff to a minimum. There were at least four aftershocks, according to the Associated Press, but none of them strong enough to rattle Washington.

Press work could not be taken up where it was left off. The presses had to be powered up, checked and safely shut down again before printing could be done. A full midnight shift was brought in to do the printing as things returned to normal.

The Federal Register was the first priority of the day, but because Congress is in pro forma session rather than recessed, there was also calendar and Congressional Record material for the House and Senate that came in later in the afternoon for publication.

Communicating with workers was the biggest challenge GPO had in the immediate aftermath of the quake, as cellular systems reached capacity and even text messages had a hard time getting through.

But all in all, a magnitude 5.8 quake was not much of a disruption for the GPO. Nothing like Hurricane Isabel in 2003, when Washington was declared a disaster area and much of the government was shut down for four days. The Federal Register was published then, too.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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