Watchdog: Russell Senate building poses threat in case of emergency

Congressional lawmakers and staff may be in increased danger in the event of an emergency or terrorist attack if they work within the Russell Senate Office Building (RSOB), according to a federal watchdog agency report.

The report faults the building, which is more than a century old, for ongoing safety violations and for not having a protected exit for evacuations.

“The RSOB is the only facility on Capitol Hill with no protected means of egress for members, staff, employees, and visitors to use to evacuate the building safely in the event of an emergency,” according to a Biennial Occupational Safety and Health Inspection Report released Monday by the Office of Compliance (OoC).

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The Russell building’s ongoing safety violations have been a cause for concern for years, and led the Office of Compliance to issue a formal citation regarding the building back in 2000.

But more than a decade later, Russell continues to pose significant threats to employees and visitors.

“The continuing lack of any exit pathways with passive protection for occupants of the RSOB remains a very serious concern to this office,” the report said. “These fire and life safety code violations increase the chance that occupants of the building may be injured or killed by the airborne toxins produced by fire before they can escape from the building.”

The OoC has been working with the Senate and the Architect of the Capitol (AoC) to upgrade the aging building’s safety features, but progress has been markedly slow.

In March 2000, the OoC’s general counsel issued a citation against the AoC because all Russell exit stairwells were unprotected against fire, smoke or toxic fumes, “posing an undue danger to the lives of occupants during the period of time necessary for escape in case of fire or other emergency,” according to the report.

The citation required the AoC to install safety measures by June 2002, but the Architect’s proposed plan projected it would take nearly two decades to complete. Procuring funding for the endeavor has also proven problematic as federal agencies continue to operate in a period of ongoing fiscal austerity.

According to the OoC report, in September 2011 the Senate Appropriations Committee denied the AoC’s $5 million request for the first phase of the Russell safety upgrade project.

The committee cited the safety upgrades as “cost prohibitive with minimal additional safety improvements beyond those currently being implemented,” according to the report. “The Committee conclude[d] that, as additional funding resources become available, that funding should be expended on other projects and deferred maintenance requirements that have a greater impact on life and safety throughout all of the Senate office buildings.”

The OoC noted, however, that the committee failed to take into account the possibility of multiple fires that could occur as the result of a terrorist attack.

“The need for emergency evacuation improvements is increasingly critical given the dangers we now recognize in a post-9/11 world,” according to the OoC report. “The U.S. Capitol is still faced with numerous threats, including a vehicle-borne explosive attack, terrorist-controlled aircraft attack, armed attacks on the Capitol Complex, suicide bombers or positioned explosive attacks, chemical, biological and/or radiological attacks, and attacks on Members and staff as well as ordinary crime.”

Though the OoC reported it will continue to work with the AoC to ensure short term fixes are swiftly implemented, the agency notes that a more significant long-term solution is required to bring the building in compliance with safety laws.