By GAIL FINEBERG
A yearlong fire-safety investigation of the Library's three Capitol Hill buildings found "inadequate or ineffective fire barriers to retard the spread of fire and smoke, inadequate exit signs, deficient smoke detection and emergency lighting, inadequate sprinkler coverage and dangerous storage of flammable and toxic materials."
U.S. Office of Compliance inspectors also found "a regrettable consistency in the lack of proper testing and maintenance of major electrical systems and of fire safety systems, such as fire alarms, smoke detectors, sprinklers, suppression systems and emergency generators."
These and more detailed findings are contained in a public report issued Jan. 25 by the Office of General Counsel, Office of Compliance, which began inspections in the Adams Building about one year ago, on Jan. 12, continued during the summer in the Jefferson Building and finished this winter in the Madison Building.
The Office of Compliance inspection team, including Thomas Seymour, an independent fire protection engineer with a national reputation for his expertise in fire safety, assessed compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) standards for a hazard-free workplace and with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards for protection against fire hazards.
Said the Library's safety officer, Robert S. Browne: "The Library of Congress wholeheartedly endorses this initiative and is committed to achieving the highest level of safety possible. The Library of Congress commends the Office of Compliance on the thorough and comprehensive report on building fire safety issues and the professional manner in which this investigation was conducted."
The Architect of the Capitol (AOC) maintains Library buildings and is responsible for most fire safety systems and devices. Library Police are responsible for monitoring the fire alarm system, staffing fire alarm control centers and responding to fires and other emergencies. Library managers and staffers are responsible for following appropriate fire safety practices.
Frank Tiscione, who seven months ago became the AOC supervising engineer at the Library, said, "Our goal is to make sure these buildings are safe." Mr. Tiscione said 80 percent of the problems identified in the Office of Compliance report can be corrected with current AOC funding and staff, within 1.5 to 2 years. "It is our intent to respond to all findings as quickly as possible," he said, adding that a task team of some 10 AOC staffers is already at work to abate hazards.
However, he said, the other 20 percent of the corrective work is structural and will take longer to fund through the congressional budget cycle.
Mr. Tiscione said studies completed this coming summer with special FY 2000 funds should provide construction cost estimates, but it could take another four years to obtain appropriated funds and complete the work, which will involve changes to historic buildings.
Both Mr. Browne and Mr. Tiscione noted that the inspection was a cooperative undertaking of their agencies with the Office of Compliance.
Mr. Browne said the Library is responsible for about 25 percent of the problems noted. "Of all the issues out there, one in four is ours," he said. "We've gone through the confidential report [an inventory of hazards to be abated] item by item and identified who is responsible for each one."
Mr. Browne said the Library is responsible for fire-safety training and education "to change habits" and regular audits to ensure that fire doors are not blocked; all pathways to safety are clear of any obstruction (trash, pallets, furnishings); books and other stored materials are not blocking sprinkler heads; chemicals are stored properly; telephones are working in remote stacks; and signs are adequate. Library Police are being trained to operate new fire command center software, he said, and they need training to operate fire extinguishers.
"We are formulating a plan to address the report. We are answerable to the Office of Compliance," Mr. Browne said.
The Library is not the only Capitol Hill agency subject to safety inspections, and its safety hazards are similar to those found recently in congressional office buildings and the Capitol.
For nearly all of their histories, these buildings had been exempt from safety regulations, fire codes and local or state fire inspectors' audits. In passing the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, Congress made its facilities and employees subject to the same safety laws that applied outside the legislative branch. This law, from which the Office of Compliance draws its regulatory authority, required "employing offices to comply with Occupational Safety and Health Act standards and maintain workplaces that are free of recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm," according to the report. In 1997 other provisions of the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act applied fire safety standards to congressional buildings, including the Library.
The compliance office report noted that some Library safety hazards identified during inspections were corrected promptly, and work orders were written to correct others. The Office of Compliance acknowledged it may take "months" to fix the problems, which are itemized in a confidential report of more than 200 pages. "Finally, there are a number of serious fire hazards remaining that will require additional funds or institutional changes to remedy," the report said.
Gary Green, general counsel in the Office of Compliance, said hazard abatement citations "are under review" by his office; he could not say how many citations there will be or when they will be issued.
The Architect of the Capitol and Library of Congress will report their progress to the Office of Compliance every three months.
Ms. Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library's staff newsletter.