Report: Russell Still a Fire Hazard

Posted July 9, 2012 at 9:59am

More than a decade after the Architect of the Capitol was first cited for fire code violations in the Russell Senate Office Building, the site is still not up to code when it comes to fire safety, according to one of its oversight agencies.

Without any changes to the current fire safety scheme, the Office of Compliance said in a report released Monday, “the chance that [Russell] will survive a significant fire without substantial damage to the building and its contents is … greatly diminished.”

That conclusion was included in OOC’s biennial report on occupational safety and health inspections for the 111th Congress.

Russell, the report continues, “is the only facility of Capitol Hill that has no protected means of egress for Members, staff, employees and visitors to use to evacuate the building safely in the event of an emergency.”

The OOC’s report describes in detail — for the first time in a public document — the agency’s efforts over the past 12 years to get the AOC to address the problems and the Senate to appropriate the funds to do so.

According to the OOC, the agency responsible for ensuring safe workplaces within the legislative branch, the problem in Russell was first identified in March 2000. That year, the OOC issued the AOC a citation for not having a system in place to protect Russell’s exit stairwells against fire and smoke.

After some initial back-and-forth between the agencies, the AOC came up with a plan to assuage the OOC’s major worry — that there were no mechanisms to keep poisonous gases and fumes released during fires from spreading to different parts of the building.

Dubbed the “Senate Alternative Life Safety Approach,” or SALSA, the AOC’s proposal would call for the implementation of a “compartmentation” scheme, which refers to the “zoning” of office spaces to keep dangerous toxins from spreading. Sometimes this involves installing doors that close automatically when triggered by a fire alarm. Experts say the inhalation of poisonous gases and fumes is a predominant cause of death in building fires.

The OOC endorsed SALSA in 2008. The plan was further bolstered by a seal of approval from the AOC historian, who said it its implementation wouldn’t interfere with the integrity of the building’s historic structure and design. Construction began on Russell in 1906, and it opened to occupants in 1909. It is the oldest Senate office building.

But Senate leaders weren’t convinced it was the best course of action, according to the report. In April 2009, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee directed the AOC to convene a “blue ribbon panel,” to include fire protection and historic preservation experts, that would be tasked with responding to the OOC’s 2000 citation of the Russell Building while also considering “the historic nature of the building.”

The panel’s final report from August 2011 — parts of which were made public for the first time Monday when the OOC report made reference to them — made the case for compartmentation, arguing that even with a sophisticated sprinkler system the building failed to meet basic safety standards. The blue ribbon panel also endorsed SALSA, while suggesting it could be modified to be more sensitive to Russell’s historic features.

The panel also put forth three recommendations that the AOC could implement to help bring Russell up to code.

Option 1 is the bare-bones approach: install automatic sprinkler systems and complete all fire detection systems at no additional cost. Option 2 would call for the installation of a compartmentation scheme, placing special doors at key areas in the building to close off smoke from spreading through corridors. Option 3 proposes a complete overhaul of the smoke control system, but the OOC said that would be so expensive and disruptive that Option 2 would be the best route for the AOC to take.

The AOC requested $5 million in 2011 to implement Option 2; the Senate Appropriations Committee denied the request.

“Implementation of the short-term and immediate recommendations, in addition to implementation of Design Option 1, eliminates all high risk fire scenarios in the Russell building while minimizing impact to its historic integrity, most effectively utilizing limited resources,” reads the Appropriations Committee’s report accompanying its fiscal 2012 budget request from September 2011.

In a nod to fiscal constraints, the committee report continues to say that when more money becomes available, it “should be expended on other projects and deferred maintenance requirements that have a greater impact on life and safety throughout all the Senate office buildings.”

It is not clear at this point what steps the OOC might take next in forcing the relevant stakeholders to comply with the terms of the 2000 citation, which is still outstanding as far as the agency is concerned. Though it has done so only one other time in its short history — when the AOC would not take measures to clear underground tunnels of asbestos — the OOC could choose to file legal action to compel the AOC to act.

OOC general counsel Pete Eveleth, in a statement to Roll Call, said he doesn’t see anything stopping the AOC from moving quickly.

“The Architect of the Capitol recently completed a compartmentation project in the Longworth House Office Building that fully abated the building’s fire safety hazards and fully preserved the building’s historic integrity. A similar compartmentation project is now underway in the Cannon House Office Building, which is architecturally similar to the Russell Senate Office Building,” he said. “We are hopeful that the Architect will be able to proceed with a similarly effective abatement plan for the Russell building now that the economic and technical feasibility of compartmentation as a solution has been so clearly demonstrated.”