Zoo Seeks Upgrades In Fire Protection

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 12, 2008

The blaze at the National Zoo began when a corroded aquarium lamp sparked in the Invertebrate House and started an electrical fire. The smoke was intense, but the flames were quickly discovered, staff was evacuated, and none of the insects, lobsters or other creatures in the building perished.

When zoo officials looked into the circumstances, however, they found, to their dismay, that the house's recently tested smoke alarms failed to activate. Further investigation showed that other fire protection systems across the zoo complex were also inadequate -- and in most cases, nonexistent.

In the aftermath of that fire two years ago -- and another small blaze in November -- zoo employees are immersed in a multi-year program to upgrade the zoo's fire detection and suppression, and smoke evacuation.

The need is dire, zoo officials said. Only 11 of 87 buildings have fully equipped sprinkler systems, and many cannot be operated because of inadequate water main pressure.

Fifteen buildings -- including the Great Ape House, the Bird House, the Reptile Discovery Center and the Small Mammal House -- have no sprinkler systems. And only 21 buildings have fire detection and alarm systems.

"This issue is what wakes me up at 3 o'clock in the morning," zoo Director John Berry said in a recent interview. "Wide awake."

Zoo officials said they want to avoid the kind of tragedy that struck the Philadelphia Zoo on Dec. 24, 1995, when 23 animals, including gorillas, orangutans, lemurs and gibbons, died in a disastrous fire inside a zoo enclosure that had no sprinklers.

"We're holding our breath," Berry said. "Until we get this done, we are in the same vulnerable place."

Berry said the April 2006 fire broke out in the morning after the staff had arrived. He said the smoke alarm didn't activate because the smoke didn't reach it.

"If this had happened three hours earlier, before any employees had shown up," he said, "we would have lost the entire collection and the whole house."

"It was, to me, a huge wake-up call," he said, adding that he realized "this is the most urgent and significant issue that the National Zoo faces."

This summer, the zoo plans to begin the next phase of its water main replacement program. Two years ago, the old main entering the zoo from Connecticut Avenue was replaced as part of the construction of the zoo's new Asia Trail exhibit.

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