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Report: Russell Still a Fire Hazard

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.

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