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CVC Watch

Step into any museum nowadays and you are likely to find visitors wandering the hallways while wearing headphones. And not the kind connected to iPods.

Most of the time, these headphones come with recorded material on a CD player or MP3 system that points out key artifacts, provides little-known details of paintings or gives some historical background on featured exhibitions.

Once the Capitol Visitor Center opens in November 2008, guests also are expected to be offered headphones — although these will be interactive, a way for tour guides to tell the ongoing story of Congress while also making the Capitol safer.

Here’s how it will work. [IMGCAP(1)]

After visitors spend time in the CVC — viewing exhibits, watching videos and perhaps even grabbing a bite to eat — they will be treated to a tour of the Capitol by an official tour guide, CVC Chief Executive Officer Terrie Rouse told Members during a House Administration oversight hearing last week.

And when they enter the Capitol, visitors will be outfitted with assisted listening devices — headsets that connect them to their tour guide during their journey through the building so they need not strain to hear what is being said.

“Visitors can move about more freely while still hearing their guide clearly without the distraction of other groups,” Rouse said. “This will also greatly reduce the noise level in the Capitol as guides will speak in a normal volume and not have to compete with ambient noises.”

This new tiny bit of freedom that the headphones could provide will be something visitors have not been treated to in years.

Prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many visitors to the Capitol were able to wander around certain hallways without being accompanied by an official guide or designated staff member. But obvious security concerns after the terrorist attacks prompted the requirement that visitors be accompanied while in the Capitol.

The idea, of course, is that guides will serve to make sure visitors stay in designated areas. Should an emergency hit the Capitol complex, the headsets will allow tour guides to better manage groups, which can reach up to 40 people. Guides will relay important information and quickly lead visitors to a designated safe area, if necessary, Rouse noted.

And Capitol Police will ask the tour guides to play an important role should a serious incident take place at the Capitol, Chief Phillip Morse told the committee.

Police will train the guides on evacuation routes, building lockdown procedures and relocation areas, Morse said. Tour guides will carry radio communication devices that enable police to quickly relay information, which can then be passed on to tourists over headsets, Morse said.

“Those who lead tour groups within the Capitol can offer an informative, safe experience,” Morse said.

Use of such headset systems won’t be entirely new for Congressional tours, as similar devices have been made available for visitors who are deaf, are hard of hearing or have other disabilities.

CVC officials also are working to ensure tours themselves can be catered to specialized groups, Rouse noted. Junior high school students visiting Washington, D.C., on a class trip will want to see different things than a group of architects coming to see the building for the first time, for example.

Additional specialized tours could be developed to integrate areas such as the Library of Congress, Botanic Garden and other areas of the Capitol grounds, Rouse added.