Damage from a $750,000 fire last Wednesday at the National Weather Service headquarters in Silver Spring could have been reduced if the federal government had followed its own fire- and life-safety standards, the head of the General Services Administration says.
Administrator Gerald P. Carmen said last Friday that a recent internal memorandum from GSA fire protection engineers cited two key recommendations--installation of sprinklers and removal of highly flammable ceiling panels--that were not followed three years ago at the Gramax Building, 8060 13th St.
The memo said these "items are some of the most serious and if corrected would have significantly limited the damage." GSA is the leasing agent for government agencies.
"We don't know what could have happened if we followed our own regulations; we only know what did happen because we didn't follow those standards," Carmen said. "From now on, all deviations from the fire-safety code have to come through my office."
The fire destroyed the 13th floor and part of the 14th floor of the Gramax building. No one was injured.
Regional GSA leasing branch chief Arthur M. Turowski said yesterday the "sprinklers were negotiated away" when a new five-year lease was drawn up in 1982 because the building owners "hotly said they didn't want to install them." The 155,000-square-foot building is leased from Plaza Realty Investors of Forest Hills, N.Y., for $1.75 million a year.
Federal documents do not show that GSA actually asked Plaza Realty negotiating partner Albert Ginsberg to include sprinklers. Ginsberg could not not be reached for comment yesterday.
The March 1982 lease did require the firm to replace the flammable panels by September 1982, but the panels are still there, according to GSA.
A 3-year-old safety report on the building says the "ceiling finish in major portions of the building consists of low density combustible fiberboard tiles. These tiles neither comply with GSA Firesafety Criteria nor the local building code for interior finish and must be removed."
As recently as last June 23, GSA leasing agent Douglas B. Foster told Ginsberg in a letter that an inspection showed the panels were still in place, there was insufficient emergency lighting and fire doors were not in place on the first floor.
"The deadlines expired long ago and promises that the items would be completed were to no avail," Foster wrote, indicating GSA would begin to contract for the work itself. "We can no longer rely upon your promises."
Before GSA got started, the fire occurred.
GSA fire- and life-safety investigator David W. Frable, who did the original fire-safety study three years ago and coauthored last week's memo to Carmen, said that "allowing the ceiling tiles to remain helped the fire spread last week."
"We did nothing wrong," Turowski said. "It was our policy to consider whether we could get various fire- and life-safety improvements into the lease, and we got the building owner to do many of the ones we wanted."
Government documents also show GSA leasing agents asked Plaza Realty to make hundreds of fire-safety, life-safety and maintenance repairs. Although most of the smaller items have been corrected, GSA said the firm had "a poor track record" for fixing things promptly.
Frable's 1980 report said "a building of this height is required to be fully protected with an automatic sprinkler system. An option would be to remove government occupants from the 12th through 14th floor." In 1981, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facilities chief Ronald L. Newsom said the Weather Service was ready to move if GSA said the word.
Although it didn't affect negotiations on the Gramax Building, Public Buildings Commissioner Richard O. Haase since has abandoned requirements that sprinklers be installed in old high-rise office buildings of 12 or more stories. Sprinklers are required in all new buildings.
Regional Buildings Commissioner James G. Whitlock said the requirement was eliminated to streamline leasing procedures.