U-S Capitol fire safety construction underway

Thursday, October 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Nearly two years after the U.S. Capitol was declared a firetrap, workers have begun an ambitious construction program to bring Congress' workplace up to modern fire safety standards.

Statuary Hall, a circular area that once was the House chamber, is closed to the public while state-of-the-art smoke detectors are installed 40 feet above the floor at the top of ornamental columns.

Seven senators and twice that number of committees have been temporarily uprooted in the 42-year-old Dirksen Senate Office Building while sprinkler systems, smoke detectors, wiring and other upgrades are installed — a process already completed in some parts of the structure.

``I knew the building was antiquated and needed to be brought up to speed,'' said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, one of the first senators forced to occupy temporary space for nearly three months. He is now back in his fourth floor office.

Bennett said he's delighted with the Dirksen building's new safety features and the renovated office space with its polished wood, fresh paint, new carpet, and the modern computer workspace he personally designed in an area that had housed a massive safe.

The House office buildings also have new sprinkler heads, replacing defective products that have been recalled; brightly lit exit signs and emergency features including new lighting, loudspeakers, pull alarms and strobe lights. And Congress has appointed its first fire marshal.

Still to come is a master plan for the Capitol building — visited by 20,000 people a day during the summer and on school holidays — that will be a road map for the building's safety, accessibility and communications features for years to come. ``We'll look at the Capitol from soup to nuts,'' said Scott Birkhead, acting facilities manager for fire and life safety. A decade-long construction program may follow that could even move Congress out of the building ``for a period of time.''

The work is supervised by Architect of the Capitol Alan M. Hantman, who said the complex, filled daily with 25,000 employees, ``is the safest it has ever been in terms of fire safety, and is rapidly becoming safer still.''

That was not the case the day before Christmas 1998, when the House inspector general raised alarms by reporting that fire safety in the Capitol and five House office buildings was so poor that there was an ``undue risk of loss of life and property.'' The Senate buildings were later found to be in no better shape.

After the report the news only got worse, with Congress' internal health and safety agency — the Office of Compliance — issuing a series of formal citations and concluding in a January, 2000 report that the level of fire safety in the Capitol complex was ``far below that of most other American office buildings of similar size and age.''

The congressional office cited a lack of fire barriers, inadequate exit signs, deficient emergency lighting, limited sprinkler coverage and dangerous storage of flammable and toxic materials.

After the citations were issued, Hantman admitted at a House hearing that the buildings ``probably would be closed down'' if fire safety codes were applied to Congress — which has exempted itself from those standards. He also cited the problems of making major structural changes in a Capitol that has unique architectural features.

Gary Green, chief of the compliance office, said in an interview, ``There's been a substantial amount of progress toward abatement of these violations.

``Technically, we have reached the point where, with modest expenditures, they could create fire barriers and still preserve the historic character'' of the Capitol. ``I am delighted they have seen the light and decided not to fight on grounds that are unnecessary.''

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., one of several lawmakers who were ready to use legislation to improve fire safety, said the complex is now getting safer but ``we're not there yet. People are safe (in the complex) but not as safe as we would like them to be.''


On the Net: Architect of the Capitol: http://www.aoc.gov