A veteran employe at the General Services Administration was given an unusual chance yesterday to publicly debate fire and life-safety issues with his boss, agency administrator Gerald P. Carmen at a press conference.
Bertrand G. Berube, a GSA staff member who was regional administrator in Washington last year, used the opportunity to charge that the agency is not doing the preventive maintenance it should to protect government workers. He said GSA "knowingly refuses to fix life and fire-safety code violations that are likely to cause death or serious injury."
The news conference was called by Public Buildings Service Commissioner Richard O. Haase to try to quell fears of government employes that the buildings they are working in are unsafe. A GSA draft survey made public Wednesday cited numerous instances of fire and safety deficiencies in federal buildings.
"We have gone above the local jurisdictions' fire codes," Haase said. "Our program is far and above that of the private sector . . . as far as life safety is concerned, there is no limiting factor on the availability of funds."
Carmen added, "I would hate to have a million federal employes think their life is in jeopardy."
GSA plans to spend $24 million on accident and fire prevention projects this year, more than was spent in all of 1981 and 1982 combined, according to Carmen. He emphasized that there have not been any fire-related deaths in federal buildings in eight years.
Berube, who was invited to the press conference by Carmen, said in a prepared statement that GSA "refuses to perform required preventive maintenance in public buildings, eroding billions of dollars of assets . . . and many public buildings are unsafe for human occupancy and do not meet OSHA requirements."
The GSA draft survey of fire and life-safety deficiencies shows that there are more than 1,300 uncorrected problems in 285 of GSA's 477 government-owned and commercially leased buildings. The survey lists in detail fire-alarm problems at the White House, 47 deficiences at the Pentagon (some of them 12 years old) and potentially carcinogenic asbestos at GSA's own headquarters. One building, which Haase said was a CIA facility at 19 Observatory Cir. NW, has an improperly installed elevator, an overloaded electrical system and no occupancy permit.
Berube said that as head of the region he repeatedly tried to get more money and manpower to correct the problems, which GSA said would cost about $100 million to fix.
Berube said that because of his complaints against agency policies, he has been demoted to a "do-nothing" job. Carmen said he is open to internal criticism and does not begrudge Berube his outspoken views. Berube's new position, Carmen said, is a lateral move aimed at giving him a chance to implement changes in the very areas Berube said were most needed.
Now facing possible dismissal after receiving an unsatisfactory performance rating by his superiors, Berube said that "despite the punishment they have inflicted, my goal is to make GSA both accountable and responsible for the welfare and safety of the employes" who work in the buildings GSA operates.
Carmen said his interest in fire-safety issues was accentuated after the two top floors of a leased building in Silver Spring were destroyed by an electrical fire July 29. GSA maintained that its buildings are safer than those in the private sector because it follows stricter standards.
"The public is entitled to the maximum amount of safety we can provide . . . within the limitations of what we can perform," Carmen said, indicating that in some cases, GSA has "not done as good a job" as was possible. "There has to be some rationale between what we'd like to have and what we can afford to have."
Berube said GSA wasn't able to perform preventive maintenance because of an arbitrary budget cut of 6 percent that Carmen imposed on the agency, much of it affecting the buildings management division responsible for life and fire safety.
The survey shows that each of the 112 government-owned buildings listed has about five violations compared to an average of four violations in each of the 173 leased buildings listed. Deficiencies in government-owned buildings included a lack of automatic sprinklers, especially in highly flammable areas, and improper exit paths, signs and corridors. Leased buildings also have an abundance of problems, with missing or faulty fire-alarm systems and elevators that are not automatically dropped to the ground floor when the fire alarm is sounded. CAPTION: Picture, GERALD P. CARMEN . . . $24 million for safety projects