Yesterday Acting DHS Deputy Secretary, Paul Schneider offered a four-letter word to describe to Congress (and the world) what every current, and former DHS employee who has ever stepped foot onto its Nebraska Avenue Complex (NAC) knows to be an accurate description. Now before you call my mom to wash my mouth out with soap, the word he used was DUMP. There are undoubtedly other four-letter words to describe the NAC but I will leave that your imagination.

Parked in the upper corner of Northwest Washington in one of the most beautiful portions of the District, the NAC is the former home of a one-time seminary, a former all-girls school and the US Navy’s cryptographers. It’s got well manicured grounds, a tennis court (and impromptu helicopter landing pad), a gymnasium and a number of red-bricked buildings set around the campus where DHS’ers go to work.

This might sound anything like a DUMP (or other four-letter word) if you’re presently trapped in a cubicle of some arcane federal office building but at the NAC you have regular opportunities to do the following:

  • Battle your officemates and colleagues for meeting/conference room space because there was not enough to go around;

  • Host visitors/meetings at picnic tables and park benches outside (when it was not raining, cicada mating season or during the sweltering Summer months) or at the Subway Restaurant (which was on campus) when no other meeting space was available;

  • Expose yourself to mold, mildew and other forms of biological agents, toxins and allergens that had been festering, growing and ‘evolving’ into new life forms in the carpets, walls, desks and ceiling tiles for decades;

  • Find inoperable toilets and plumbing;

  • Violate the physical parameters and capacity of meeting rooms and office spaces during regular business and most certainly during ‘events and emergencies’ when you needed to get critical people in the same room;

  • Shower with no hot water following a workout at the NAC gym;

  • Attend briefings, presentations and addresses by senior officials in a ‘decommissioned’ Navy Chapel because there is no other space to bring people together;

  • Observe water freeze on the floor of your office and icicles form on sprinkler pipes;

  • Share an office or cubicle space meant for one person with three others; and so on…

I know to some this will seem to be whining. There are undoubtedly harsher working environments encountered by other DHS employees (on the border, on Coast Guard cutters, undercover and regular operations by ICE, USSS and others, etc.) but if you are going to ask people to do a demanding, absolutely necessary and thankless job and expect it be a professional, respectable 24-7 operation, having the facilities and resources to make it happen is a must. While the current NAC facility and operations have improved DRAMATICALLY since DHS took residence in 2003, it remains an embarrassment.

I can only imagine what went through then-nominee Michael Chertoff’s mind when he stepped foot into the building where his new office would be to begin the transition with then-Secretary Tom Ridge. “I’m leaving a lifetime appointment and judge’s chambers for this?”

When former President Reagan died in 2004 the NAC served as the staging ground for all of the then-current Cabinet Secretaries to gather en mass before proceeding to National Cathedral for the Funeral Service. Several of us who worked in the building where the Secretaries assembled observed the look of shock on their faces as they entered the building and holding room prior to leaving for the service. One of us remarked that they might all pass the hat and buy Secretary Ridge a Home Depot Gift Card to help him fix up the place or rally volunteers from their Departments and sponsor a Habitat for Humanity weekend to repair a few things. (They didn’t do either but it would have helped.).

Congress and others make much about morale at the Department and appropriately so. There are lots of ways to improve it. Better salaries and leadership/career development opportunities are just two. So is a better work environment. Investing in the physical infrastructure of the place you want working 24-7, 365 days a year without stop, without risk of physical breakdown and that is not an embarrassment is not a luxury – it’s a requirement. Whether it is a completely refurbished facility at Nebraska Avenue or redevelopment of St. Elizabeth’s, having a DHS Headquarters that is truly functional, respectable and effective is an investment that will benefit every American — not just the employees who work there.

Many can easily argue the Department will feel right at home at a federally run psychiatric hospital (St Elizabeth’s) but the foot dragging and bureaucratic gamesmanship that is going on in making a REAL DHS Headquarters a reality only makes the Department’s job harder. Congress can fix that problem and Paul Schneider sent that message loud and clear yesterday.

Thank you Acting Deputy Secretary Schneider for speaking up yesterday and for accurately describing the conditions that NAC employees operate. I especially want to applaud your use of a four-letter word. I’m sure it’s not the first one that has come to mind in a Congressional Hearing or by spending another day at the NAC but you proved yourself to be a skilled diplomat and your word choice proved it. I just hope it will spur the use of a six-letter word – ACTION.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More