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Kennedy Center's President Defends Fire Safety Plan

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page C01

Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser told a congressional panel yesterday that the center's fire safety plan protects visitors and the building even though a new report by the Government Accountability Office criticized the complex's fire safety measures as inadequate.

"I believe the building is safe, or I would shut it down," Kaiser said.

GAO officials Keith Cunningham, left, and Mark Goldstein testify at the House subcommittee hearing. (Lauren Victoria Burke For The Washington Post)

He was called to Capitol Hill to discuss the GAO findings by the House Appropriations subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the center's public funds.

In a highly critical report released this week, the GAO said the center had made a mistake by not installing sprinklers and smoke evacuation systems in three main halls. The study found deficiencies in the Grand Foyer and in the center's two high-ceilinged entrance hallways, the Hall of States and the Hall of Nations, and focused particular concern on the Millennium Stages in the Grand Foyer, where free concerts are given in the early evening.

"The stages located at the ends of the Grand Foyer could pose exit problems in the event of fire. Furthermore, the Millennium Stages do not have sprinkler and smoke control systems as required by fire code," Mark Goldstein, the GAO's director of physical infrastructure issues, said at yesterday's hearing. Afterward, Goldstein said the center is subject to review by the city's fire marshals only when the president is visiting the building. The center does have firefighters on its staff.

The GAO report also slammed the arts complex for cost overruns on four projects, saying the center needs better financial management. The projects cited were the eight-year-old Concert Hall renovation, which ended up 41 percent over budget; the two-year-old Opera House overhaul, 21 percent over budget; the year-old fire alarm system, 50 percent over budget; and last year's public space modifications, 13 percent over budget.

Since 1995 Congress has given the Kennedy Center $203 million for construction and renovation projects. Center officials expect to ask for an additional $43 million through 2008. Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), the subcommittee chairman, warned that the pattern of going over budget could not continue. "We might be required to take it out of your funds," he said.

Kaiser argued that the center overhauled its management of construction finances in 2003, after the GAO first found accounting problems. The work on the Opera House was completed that year. Kaiser said the report was taking issue with old projects, which were in the works or completed before the center received the GAO's earlier recommendations. "We do not believe, therefore, that the new report gives a valid view of current project management at the Kennedy Center," Kaiser said.

"We recognize the Kennedy Center did inherit some serious problems," Goldstein said. "We would like to have them further along."

GAO officials and subcommittee members asked Kaiser to do a better job of telling them about problems and suggested that the center has had too much independence. Yesterday's hearing before the House Appropriations subcommittee on interior, environment and related agencies was the Kennedy Center's first formal appropriations hearing in five years. Congress gives the center about $17 million a year for its capital projects.

In response to questions about fire safety, Kaiser said the Millennium Stages, which are close to the exit doors on the Potomac River side of the center, offer three ways to leave in case of fire.

Kaiser also responded to GAO objections to center officials' changing the original fire plan. He said the center followed the suggestions of its consultants, who are registered fire protection engineers.

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) said his experience in the building industry had taught him that "there are always disputes on the fire code. There is no compliance anywhere in this country." But, he added, given the serious charges in the GAO report, "the Kennedy Center can't slough this off."

Vincent Brannigan, a law professor in the University of Maryland's Department of Fire Protection Engineering, said the center was probably right not to install sprinklers in the halls. "From purely technical grounds, sprinklers are problematic in high bay areas," he said. He said he had not seen the materials cited by either the GAO or the center. The hearing did not clarify whether the Kennedy Center was right or wrong on its approaches to fire safety. Kaiser agreed to bring in a third party, the Smithsonian Institution's Office of Safety and Environmental Management, to mediate.

Rep. Norman Dicks (D-Wash.) said he took a tour of the center on Tuesday and was satisfied. "The Kennedy Center has taken its responsibility for public safety very seriously," he said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company