Agencies at Odds on Russell Fire Safety

Posted July 9, 2012 at 5:59pm

Newly released internal correspondence among legislative branch offices paint a troubling picture of the Russell Senate Office Building’s decadelong noncompliance with fire safety regulations and reveal considerable interagency discord over whether such sensitive information should be publicized.

The memos are included in the appendix of a biennial report, published Monday by the Office of Compliance, detailing occupational safety and health inspections in the 111th Congress.

The 17-year-old OOC, responsible for enforcing safety and other rules in legislative branch workplaces, focused much of its report on the outstanding citation issued in 2000 against the Architect of the Capitol for its management of Russell, the oldest Senate office building.

“The AOC has greatly improved the safety in [Russell] through the installation of fire detection, suppression and egress systems,” AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki told Roll Call. “It [is] much safer today than when the citation was written in 2000.”

But the OOC won’t consider the citation closed until the AOC takes additional measures to bring Russell into compliance with Office of Compliance safety standards.

In 2000, the OOC initially faulted Russell for not having a system in place to protect exit stairwells against fire. It also said Russell needed a “compartmentation” scheme to keep dangerous toxins from spreading throughout the building that, when inhaled, are a leading cause of death in fire situations.

Over the past 12 years, efforts to bring Russell up to code have been delayed by bureaucratic discretion and budget considerations. That the OOC has chosen now to go public with a comprehensive chronology of events and the findings of a confidential report could signal that it is contemplating more dramatic actions to force stakeholders’ hands.

‘Not Ours to Make Public’

In 2008, the AOC proposed a plan to address Russell’s woes, according to the OOC.

In 2009, however, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee called for a “blue ribbon panel” of fire safety experts and historians to report on the best course of action.

The panel completed its report in August 2011, but the public is not allowed to see the report unless the Rules and Administration Committee consents to its release.

Both the AOC and the Senate chief counsel for employment repeatedly urged the OOC not to include any references to the panel’s findings in its biennial report — pleas the OOC chose to ignore.

“It was not intended for public discussion and contains information that is security sensitive,” Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers wrote in a September 2011 memo submitted during the drafting stages of the biennial report. “Furthermore, public discussion of the context of the Blue Ribbon Panel is unnecessary because the relevant stakeholders have access to the report.”

Senate Senior Counsel for Employment Patrick McMurray agreed, writing in February 2012 that certain information would “compromise rather than enhance the safety of Congressional employees.”

Also, he said, OOC Executive Director Tamara Chrisler had already gone on record in 2010 to say that “the report is not ours to make public.”

This year, the OOC took a different tack, for the first time providing the public with details of the blue ribbon panel’s recommendations.

According to the OOC report, the panel endorsed compartmentation and said that sprinklers and fire alarms alone would not solve Russell’s problems.

“Under current conditions, should a serious fire occur, those occupying and visiting [Russell] might not reach safety in time and therefore face a greater chance of being injured or killed,” the OOC said in paraphrasing the blue ribbon commission’s report.

The OOC also divulged that only one of the panel’s three main recommendations for Russell’s problems would be viable in terms of costs, logistics and meeting the agency’s standards.

In the fiscal 2012 budget cycle, the Senate Appropriations Committee opted not to fund that one approach at $5 million. A less costly solution, it contended, “eliminates all high risk fire scenarios in the Russell building.”

Senate Rules Committee Staff Director Jean Bordewich would not comment on whether the panel findings might be released, but she said the committee supports the fiscal 2012 appropriation.

“The Russell building is constructed of stone, is nearly fully sprinklered and has a 24-hour police presence,” she said. “The Rules Committee supports [the] determination that the millions of dollars in additional construction measures which the OOC desires would do little to further the overall safety” of Russell.

‘Unfortunate’ Report

In memos, the AOC and the Senate chief counsel for employment also criticized the OOC’s characterization of the status of workplace safety across the legislative branch campus.

In pointed responses sent during the drafting stages of the biennial report, stakeholders said they hoped the final product would be more “balanced” in its tone.

“It is unfortunate that the Draft Report’s Overview does not provide a more balanced view of the overall state of safety today, and does not clearly articulate the tremendous progress being made across the Legislative Branch,” wrote Susan Adams, director of AOC Safety, Fire and Environmental Programs, in September 2011. “The level of safety and health within legislative workplaces has never been higher.”

Jean Manning of the Office of the Senate Chief Counsel for Employment wrote in August 2011 that the OOC report “inaccurately portrays” how the AOC and Senate leaders have carried out recommendations of the blue ribbon panel, “including the addition of an exit for mobility-impaired individuals and the installation of annunciator alarm systems throughout the [Russell] attic.”

The AOC’s Malecki, while also stressing the strides made by her agency, conceded that there is work left to do.

“We acknowledge that additional work is required to meet modern codes,” she said. “The AOC continues to work … to ensure that the solutions developed provide a high standard of fire protection in the Russell Building while ensuring that the unique historic and architectural features in the building are not compromised or destroyed.”