Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ops Center: the charm of going blue in a Barbie-size wooden outhouse with a mini blue bulb

In case you did not see this exclusive from WaPo, a peek into the State Department's Operations Center. Excerpt: 

Every secret federal command center has its charms. At the Pentagon, vents slit the floor to block fumes, in case of a chemical attack. At the National Counterterrorism Center, an electric current excites gas between glass panes, fogging over for top-secret meetings. At the White House, the Situation Room seals so tightly that closing the door creates a sucking sound.

But none comes close to the State Department's Operations Center. Or its Barbie-size wooden outhouse, nailed to a beam, fitted with a miniature blue bulb.

"I'm going blue!" duty desk officers call out when they stand up to go to the bathroom. They flip a switch, triggering a blue glow from the outhouse. As on an airplane, the light signals: Bathroom occupied; remain in your seats. Work stations must be staffed in case of an emergency.

The ops center at State mixes, inimitably, an offbeat sense of humor and an obsessive sense of mission, with its round-the-clock, windowless, weight-gaining jobs. Down the hall from the secretary of state's suite, the center is a secure, adrenalin-injected space, accessed through the swipe of a badge and the peck of a keypad code.
The ops center handles about 340,000 calls on 244 lines a year, not all of them momentous. "Sir, Puerto Rico is not governed by the State Department," an officer drones to a man in San Juan. "You need to contact local authorities. Puerto Rico is actually a U.S. territory."

During shuttle launches, State officers stand by in case the flight aborts and orbits back to earth. They use a pea-green, 1960s-style phone, a dedicated line to the NASA flight director. If the shuttle has to divert to land in Spain, for example, they'll call Madrid and say: 1. Don't panic. 2. Clear the airspace. 3. It's coming your way.
What matters is you're on shift, in the right chair."

Which is why ops officers take bathroom breaks so deliberately. You might call it a unique approach to government waste. Officers announce, "I'm going blue!" And when they reach the bathroom door, a red-lettered sign admonishes:

"Limit Your Visit."

Continue reading, For State Department officers directing calls, adrenaline always on the line.

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