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Agencies at Odds on Russell Fire Safety

“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.”

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