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Safety Chief for Capitol Proposed

WASHINGTON (AP) — Trying to speed up preventive measures in a Capitol complex cited for fire code violations, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed today that Congress establish a Director of Fire Safety and Protection.

The proposal, which has been planned for some time, nonetheless came a day after a congressional report concluded there was much work to do before the Capitol and other congressional buildings met fire codes.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the office under the Architect of the Capitol would take over preparation of a comprehensive plan to correct the violations and regularly test Congress' fire protection and warning equipment. He said that bringing the complex in compliance with fire codes was ``vital not only for the people who work here, but also for the millions of tourists who visit each year.''

Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., founder of the Congressional Fire and Emergency Services Caucus, called the bill ``an attempt to head off a potential disaster before it happens. Our lack of preparedness would be considered a gross violation at any American corporation.''

Similar bipartisan legislation was being planned in the Senate, Hoyer said.

On Tuesday, the House inspector general Steven A. McNamara reported that the architect's office, which maintains congressional buildings, has yet to replace most defective sprinklers 16 months after fire safety problems were first reported — and a comprehensive safety plan had not been accomplished.

The major progress has been in installation of new smoke detectors, and a system of alarms, strobe lights and speakers that would warn of a fire emergency, McNamara said.

``Although the AOC made improvements to House fire protection systems, they continue to take a haphazard approach to planning, implementing installing and completing fire protection systems throughout the House complex,'' the report said.

McNamara found:

—Not all firefighting components within a building are connected to a central station, which would monitor the systems and provided up-to-date information to emergency responders.

—The architect is moving slowly in replacing sprinklers that the Consumer Product Safety Commission identified as defective. Of 5,270 replacement sprinkler heads that were provided for the House side of the complex, only 1,300 have been installed.

—Despite the need for new emergency doors, unobstructed exit routes, better exit signs and evacuation planning, much of that work has not been done. Proper doors have not been installed, most emergency exits are not connected to alarm systems that would allow automatic opening, many exit signs are not visible and evacuation studies have not been completed.

The architect's spokesman, Bruce Milhans, said his office agreed with the conclusions.

``We have indeed taken steps to improve and have significant steps ahead,'' he said. ``We're already working on a comprehensive fire protection plan.''

Milhans said architect officials are conducting overall assessments of fire risks and then will complete a building-by-building plan along with a schedule of priority projects. ``Some projects have been funded and if they haven't, we've asked for funding. We're well on the way,'' he said.

In March, Congress' health and safety agency issued formal citations ordering the architect to fix fire safety hazards that jeopardize the lives of lawmakers, their staffs and thousands of daily visitors.
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