Agency argues for control of CVC fire-alarm system

The Office of Compliance (OoC) is asking for a clearly delineated role in overseeing the fire alarms inside the new Capitol Visitor Center.

On May 3, the agency testified to the Senate Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee that it should be the “authority having jurisdiction” over the alarm system, a distinction that would also give it the ability to make the final decision on all fire-code issues as well as those dealing with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations.

The agency is concerned that because the new center — which will host hundreds of thousands of tourists — is underground it will require a fool-proof fire-safety and evacuation system largely untested in government buildings.

While the OoC is the agency that ensures that legislative-branch agencies follow federal safety and health standards, it does not specifically have jurisdictional rights to oversee the new CVC fire alarms.  

Peter Eveleth, OoC general counsel, told committee Chairman Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) that the agency is the “perfect model” to have the oversight role because it is an independent entity with “a full method of litigating.”

An Allard spokeswoman said putting the fire marshal under OoC authority would require legislation.

Fire-alarm systems in the Capitol complex vary. Currently, if a fire alarm is pulled within the U.S. Capitol, sirens do not immediately sound. Instead, Capitol Police receive a signal indicating that an alarm has been activated and send officers to investigate the problem.

“If they find that there is reason to evacuate the building, the police initiate the evacuation of that building — of the Capitol building itself,” Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman told the subcommittee.

The police use this system to ensure that alarms cannot be pulled in an effort to disrupt committee meetings inside the Capitol and to keep false alarms to a minimum. Because there are so many police stationed in the building the monitoring system is safe and effective, according to the Capitol Police.

A different system exists inside the House and Senate office buildings. If a fire alarm is pulled there, sirens begin and the building is evacuated.

“We have not been involved in the discussions,” Eveleth said. “It is our belief that, except for [inside the] Capitol, if a fire alarm is pulled then the alarm should go off.”

The dispute over the fire-safety system began earlier this year between the Capitol Police leadership, who favored a staggered fire-alarm system, and the Architect of the Capitol (AoC) fire marshal, who advocated for an instantaneous alarm.

Tom Fontana, a spokesman for the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC), confirmed that a decision on the design of the system for the 580,000-square-foot center had been reached, but he could not discuss specifics, citing security concerns.

“The AoC fire marshal and the Capitol Police met last week to discuss only procedural aspects and programming requirements of the CVC fire-alarm system,” Fontana said. “The design of the fire-alarm system has been approved, and wall and ceiling close-in work can continue while procedural issues are resolved."

It was not clear which plan had been chosen.

Capitol Police spokeswoman Kimberly Schneider also would not elaborate on the fire-safety plan yesterday.

Hantman told the subcommittee April 27 that the complexity of the fire-alarm and evacuation systems and the fact that the CVC is underground are the points of contention between the two agencies.

Early this month, Eveleth told Allard that the OoC was siding with the AoC’s fire marshal on advocating for the instantaneous fire-alarm system mainly because the facilities are located underground and would require expedited evacuation procedures.

He added that the situation at the CVC is “unique because there are a large number of Capitol Police available [inside the Capitol]. This is not the case inside some of the larger office buildings.”

The fire-safety system inside the CVC includes “5,000 smoke-detection and alarm devices, security systems, a smoke evacuation system, a state-of-the-art public-address and warning system and the full integration of these systems with emergency generators,” according to Hantman’s testimony to House Appropriators Mar.14.

The Government Accountability Office cautioned the subcommittee that delays associated with the fire system could further delay the CVC’s opening date, which is already years overdue, and add to the project’s already bloated price tag.

The AoC has requested $20.6 million for fiscal year 2007 to complete the project and has set the total price tag at about $550 million.

Hantman assured the subcommittee that the CVC’s fire systems would not affect the April 2007 opening date.