Architect Declares Renovations Will Make Capitol a ‘Benchmark’ for Fire Safety

Posted July 9, 2003 at 9:29am

More than six months after an Office of Compliance report criticized fire safety measures in the Capitol complex, Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman announced Tuesday that a variety of corrective measures are now in place.

“The Capitol will be the benchmark for fire safety in historic structures,” Hantman said during a forum on fire safety.

Among the changes are the replacement of automatic sprinkler heads; installation of new exit signs, lighting, panic devices and fire safety doors; and elimination of revolving doors.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, all these things are being done in an orderly manner,” Hantman said.

The December 2002 Office of Compliance report, required under the Congressional Accountability Act, listed a host of trouble areas: overcrowding in the Capitol, lack of adequate alarms and exits, blocked electrical boxes and fire extinguishers, improper storage of flammable materials, missing or blocked automatic sprinklers, and overall poor communications infrastructure.

“Our goal is to provide Members, staff and visitors with fire-safe buildings that comply with the modern fire- and life-safety codes, while maintaining the historic and architecturally sensitive features of the buildings,” Hantman said.

The Architect’s office has adopted two sets of standards, the National Fire Protection Association’s 101 life safety code and the Building Officials and Code Administrators national building code.

Work will continue on improving fire alarm and detection systems, he added. The Architect’s office will request funds in fiscal 2005 for an “audibility and intelligibility” upgrade, to improve the sound of fire alarms and the Capitol’s annunicator system.

Additionally, the Architect’s office will award a contract this fall for a Capitol-wide emergency management system that would connect the fire systems in each building and permit centralized security monitoring. The new system would allow the Capitol Police to monitor alarms in Congressional office buildings through a central command center, AOC Fire Marshal Ken Lauziere said.

Lauziere also discussed the installation of various sprinklers and fire detection systems in the Capitol, office buildings and Library of Congress.

Many of the sprinklers and connecting pipes are designed to blend into building walls, Lauziere said, noting that smoke detectors installed in the Brumidi corridor have been painted to match their surroundings.

“The more ornate the ceiling the easier it is to hide the sprinkler head,” he said.

The need for large-scale fire safety improvements, the Architect said, has occurred because much of the Capitol did not have such measures as late as the 1990s.

“If we were any place but on Capitol Hill, we wouldn’t have to be doing the renovations we’re doing,” he said. The Office of Compliance had earlier criticized the Capitol’s fire-safety measures, in 1998 and 2000 reports, although many of those issues have been corrected.

Reps. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) and Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), co-chairmen of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, also attended the event. Weldon founded the caucus in 1987, after a fire broke out in then-Speaker Jim Wright’s (D-Texas) office in the Longworth House Office Building, which did not have fire alarms at that time.

“You had Capitol Hill police officers running through the Longworth Building shouting ‘fire,’” recalled Weldon, a former volunteer fire chief, who discovered the blaze.