Monday, June 29, 2009

Lighting A Fire Over FDA

FDA has sometimes been portrayed as an agency full of cautious bureaucrats who would rather dicker with sponsors about esoteric statistical issues than approve products that patients need. But events we witnessed Friday underscore that the agency is full of hard working professionals well aware of the life or death implications of their jobs. Around seven p.m., a thunderstorm rolled through the Washington area, pretty typical for a summer evening. But after the deluge, there was another ripple of noise: sirens were blaring as emergency personnel raced towards FDA's Parklawn building, the massive structure in Rockville, Md., that had served as the agency's flagship office before the birth of the White Oak campus.

Fire trucks from Wheaton, Sliver Spring, and the National Institutes of Health – who knew? – converged on Parklawn, and a stretcher was wheeled towards the entrance.

Outside, evacuees clustered in three groups – security guards, cleaning staff, and a looser amalgam of desk workers. Everybody's consensus was that lighting had struck the building. The lights had flickered out and the emergency ones had come on, along with the fire alarms and an automated voice telling everyone to leave. But even the folks who wanted to go home after that were stuck; the fire trucks had blocked the entrance to the parking lot.

It seems that nothing too serious had happened. The evacuation order was a preliminary communication about an emerging safety issue, if you will. Eventually the fire trucks drove off and the employees drifted back in. And as night fell, there were still lights burning in Parklawn.

M. Nielsen Hobbs

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