Thursday, July 3, 2008

USA, DC - Today at work...

My day started the usual way... wake up, try not to trip over my own feet, water the plants, drive down the Parkway, and then try to sit at my desk and look busy. However, right at 9am, I got a message that I had to go out toward Bethesda immediately to deal with a traffic issue. Specifically, I had to get to a stretch of road -- Maryland Route 355 (MD 355) -- right in front of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Navy Medical Center (NNMC).

This was my lead: an image from the traffic camera dated July 2, showing the contractor blocking the bus pull-off. I parked along the access to the right (NIH side) and NNMC is located on the left side.

I tried to do a bit of research before I went... I called all our usual field operations folks to see if they knew what was going on. I called the County's Transportation Management Center (TMC), as they usually know EVERYTHING happening in the county, and I trust every single one of the people working there. They reported some construction hassles yesterday which shut down a lane along southbound MD 355 & significantly disrupted bus operations as a result. That is, buses can't pickup passengers (particularly disabled passengers) when they can't pull up to the curb... and the curb lane was shut down. OK so I had a lead: my urgent issue is related to construction.

Next, I pull out my plans for some work that I knew NIH was doing. They just built a new visitors access in a really dumb location, and I suspected that their contractors were doing funky things with traffic. I looked at our video logs and compared 2006 to 2007, just to make sure I was familiar with how things used to look like and how things more-or-less look today. I looked at the traffic cameras at a nearby intersection and spotted a part of the southbound lane coned off, but it was the part they're allowed to cone off.

Staring into the traffic camera, however, I noted something else... a northbound lane was coned off. The northbound side fronts the NNMC and shouldn't have anything to do with NIH construction. There was a federal police officer parked in the northbound curb lane... and as I was watching, a second officer pulled in behind. I started thinking that, perhaps, it had to do with the pending merger of the Walter Reed Medical Center into the NNMC, which is prompting a LOT of construction in the whole area.

This is MD 355, as viewed from the northern side of NIH. The NNMC is along the left side.

Hoping to spot construction, the TMC rotated the camera for me so I could get a look in the other direction, and here's where I REALLY got confused. All this time, I thought I could just resolve whatever the traffic issue was without having to leave my chair. I just thought it'd be NIH's contractor doing something, so I could call NIH and have it resolved. With the camera pointing in the other direction, however, I spotted about 10 SHA dumptrucks lined up along the northbound lane.

Why were WE causing the problems? And why didn't anyone know about it before handing me the assignment??

The County's TMC didn't know anything about this... so next I called our Statewide Operations Center and they didn't have a clue as to what was going on, either. I called up our Fairland Maintenance Shop and got a lead: they were indeed our trucks. I spoke with the boss there and all he knew was that he was ordered to send pretty much his whole fleet there.

The construction site on the right, along NIH; and the wall of SHA trucks on the left, along NNMC.

Staring at the camera, I was at a loss as to 1) why we'd need so many trucks; 2) why were they all lined up in the same place; and 3) why do I not see anyone in lime-green vests milling about? Er, granted, it's common stereotype to see road crews chilling in their trucks and not actually doing anything... but still, not on my watch.

OK, I was getting more questions than answers: it was field time. I told my team leader that I was going to head out and chat with the Feds, and he jokingly mentioned "be careful, they have guns!". If only I knew how right he was. I hopped in my car and about 15 minutes later I was cruising down MD 355. As I passed Cedar Lane -- the northern perimeter of NIH and NNMC -- I looked leftward at the northbound lanes and noticed something peculiar.

Right behind the fence of the NNMC, there were soldiers in battle fatigues lining the perimeter. They didn't immediately appear to have guns, but I spotted assault rifles cleverly hidden behind them, with the length of the gun flush against the back of their legs; and their arms crossed behind their backs ready to wield the weapons if needed. Immediately, my engineer-sense told me that this wasn't typical of most construction sites.

I pulled into NIH's construction access -- which is what up to this point I had still been thinking was the real issue -- and got out of my car. I went north to the nearest signal so I could cross the street & talk to the SHA guys, but instead I spotted a police officer here and started talking to him instead. All he said was that there was a dignitary visiting & with that a voice came over his radio... he immediately began holding back all the pedestrians, me included. I attempted to explain that I was here to talk with someone in charge or with the SHA guys, but he said there was nothing he could do for the next 30 minutes.

The action was primarily occurring just beyond this signal, along the left side. The helipads are located right next to the fence.

I immediately began to recognise that there were more powerful people in charge than there are in the entire State of Maryland, so I didn't press the issue with the officer. I walked back toward my car just as an NIH police vehicle pulled up beside it. Fortunately, I recognised this officer from past projects I have had with NIH, and he was immediately welcoming. However, he also pointed out that as of that moment: I wasn't allowed to walk anywhere nor drive anywhere. The President was on his way. The SHA dumptrucks formed a solid wall of steel between the NNMC helicopter pad and the street.

They completely shut down MD 355 in both directions, pedestrian traffic completely ceased, and I stood there chatting with the officer as I began to hear helicopters in the distance. I thought they were far away, but the sound increased incredibly fast: they were just barely above the tree line and, indeed, buzzed right through the top of the trees as they came directly over my head. After clearing the trees, they dropped down so low that I almost felt like I could reach up and touch them: I'd say perhaps 50 feet or so above me. At a temperature of nearly 90 degrees and only 10 in the morning, the gale from the propellers felt wonderful.

First one chopper, then two more -- as is the standard for the President (for security reasons). I asked if I could take photos, but the officer reminded me (I should've known this already) that if I pointed anything toward the helicopters, I would immediately have a lot of snipers staring at me down their scopes... I certainly did not want to test that path. After the helicopters landed and we were waiting for the President to clear, I looked around and spotted snipers on every single building I could see. They were on rooftops; on ledges; and I even spotted one in a tree just across the street. I don't think I've ever had that many guns pointed in my general direction before, though I suppose it's comparable to the incident up near NSA when I had a guy pointing a sub-machine gun directly at me...

Snipers on top of a building on NIH.

After all that, the only reason I was there was to help clean up the traffic mess that arose after they reopened MD 355. You can't close one of the busiest roads in the entire state for 30 minutes without creating absolute havoc, so that was where I came in. However, none of that is interesting... especially because the only thing I actually did was call TMC and alert them to the chaos. By the way, it turns out I was actually partly correct: it did have to do with Walter Reed merging into the NNMC -- today was the dedication ceremony. Ahh, that was my most fun field assignment yet.

Later, I managed to waste a good share of the afternoon by piling up a coworker's desk with lots and lots of junk for when he got back on Monday (revenge for him getting to have off today)

What we did to my friend's desk... it's probably funnier if you're one of us.

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