Feds in Heat: The Misery Index

Thursday - 6/24/2010, 4:00am EDT

Many Washington-based feds think they work in the hottest, most humid of Uncle Sam's stateside outposts.

Some also believe this is the allergy capital of the United States, that we have the worst drivers and traffic outside of Bangkok, and that the one-finger salute is our salutation-of-choice.

So how hot is it here, and where you live?

At one-time, according to local legend, the British Embassy moved most of its staff to New England each summer, and paid those who remained in this one-time swamp a tropical allowance. (FYI: This is one of those stories that are too good to check.)

But it is true that some federal civil servants from Houston and New Orleans beg for temporary assignments to their Washington headquarters because of our (relatively) dry climate. Feds who work in Las Vegas and El Paso, Memphis and Little Rock long for our (relatively) cool breezes in summertime.

Up until the mid-1970s the government here and in other cities used what was called the "misery index." Once indoor temperatures hit a certain temperature and humidity level, feds in that building were dismissed.

The problem was where the temperature-humidity index reading was taken. Many bosses in those days had window AC units that worked. Often employees had to resort to fans. Or open windows which, in olden days, opened. Or to remove ties which, in olden days, people wore.

A reader sent me a clip of a 1994 Federal Diary column I did for The Washington Post. It says in part:

    "If you were reading this column on a 100-degree day 20 years ago, you would be doing it in the comfort of your home rather than on the way to, or at, the office.

    "Alas, feds suffering the heartbreak of prickly heat on days with triple-digit temperatures no longer have the Misery Index to fall back on. For many years, sweltering feds watched the index (listing unacceptable indoor temperatures and humidity levels) like serious gamblers watch the lottery drawing.

    "When the Misery Index indoor levels registered, bingo, it was time to go home..."

That reminds me so much of the Gettysburg Address. Short, yet brilliant. And it just gets better with time. But I digress...

Another hot-under-the-collar fed sent the following:

    "Older Feds like myself will remember the days in DC back in the '60s and earlier when many government buildings - other than executives' offices with their own AC window units - were not air conditioned, and fans were ubiquitous, as were openable windows. However, under guidelines put out in those bygone days by the old Civil Service Commission, workers had to be dismissed once indoor wet bulb temperature readings reached dangerously high levels (have searched for but couldn't find the old maximum temperature policy guidance to jog my memory as to the exact indoor maximum temperature number that had to be reached). Believe me, things in the 'good old [pre-AC in most Federal offices] summertime' ... weren't." WTR

So anybody got information on the actual numbers in the Misery Index? Or memories of life before AC became more or less universal? Antiques Roadshow is coming to Washington (for two days) in August. Maybe a copy of the Misery Index will show up.

To reach me: mcausey@federalnewsradio.com


Nearly Useless Factoid
by Suzanne Kubota

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