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Agencies at Odds on Russell Fire Safety

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.

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