Federal inspectors have turned up almost 900 fire and life-safety deficiencies in 140 government office buildings in the Washington area, according to a draft report released by General Services Administration chief Gerald P. Carmen.
Some recommendations to correct the deficiencies have been left unattended for as long as four years, while others are not scheduled for action until fiscal 1986.
The survey, triggered in part by a fire two weeks ago that seriously damaged two floors of the National Weather Service headquarters in Silver Spring, shows that 34 federally owned high-rise buildings have 353 deficiencies, including 92 in which recommendations were made to install sprinklers and 63 to provide safer or more accessible exits. The latter recommendations include unlocking emergency exit doors and putting no-skid strips on slippery stairwells.
In addition, 106 government-leased high-rise buildings have 533 deficiences, including 162 with recommendations to improve or establish safe exit routes, 95 for sprinklers and 77 for installation of devices that allow firefighters to "recapture" an elevator from whatever floor it is on.
Government-owned high-rise buildings are defined as being at least six stories high. Government-leased high-rise buildings are at least eight stories high.
Although federal fire and life-safety standards are tougher than those generally imposed by local jurisdictions on private buildings, GSA officials say that alterations needed to bring buildings "up to code" often are postponed by tight budgets and a lack of resources.
Local fire officials have no authority to enforce community or state codes on federal property. Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax county fire officials do exercise control over federally leased space, but the District of Columbia does not, leaving the burden of compliance heavily on the shoulders of the GSA.
Helping to complicate GSA's effort to remedy deficiencies is an often-acrimonious split between the agency's regional accident and fire protection division, which is responsible for citing code violations, on the one hand, and the Public Buildings Service leasing staff, which is empowered to make improvements through work-orders or lease negotiations with building owners, on the other.
"They often tolerate each other at best," said one top GSA official.
As a result, Carmen has ordered that responsibility for follow-up on recommendations will rest with the GSA office of oversight, an independent team of investigators responsible directly to Carmen.
"We do have a situation where both the chickens and the fox are in the same henhouse," Carmen said.
Regional GSA Public Buildings Commissioner James G. Whitlock said that, while some corrections are postponed, "critical, life-threatening problems are immediately addressed." He cautioned that reading the totals in the survey was "risky business" because they were compiled over one weekend in an effort to get a "picture" of the fire and life-safety problems in government buildings.
"In some cases we know that we have taken actions on some of the recommendations that won't show up on the report because the people who put it together are different from the people who do the corrective work," Whitlock said. "It is still a draft, we have not checked and double-checked everything."
A similar communications gap helped prompt Carmen to ask for the study last week. Earlier, a federal employe had asked Carmen why life-safety problems were allowed to continue at the National Archives building downtown for four years. Carmen said he learned that Archives officials were not fully aware of the recommendations made by GSA safety inspectors.
Also after the National Weather Service fire, Carmen learned that GSA leasing officials refused to uphold a recommendation by the fire safety division to install sprinklers when they negotiated a new five-year lease in 1982. GSA officials have said that the building owner claimed the costs would be prohibitive.
"We are not going to continue to be in a position where we negotiate away life and safety issues," Carmen said. "We are charged with giving federal employes a safe place to work and we're going to do that. . . . If the lessor doesn't like that, we'll consider stop-payment of rent until there is compliance ."
Carmen said he doesn't want to "compromise" employe safety but also doesn't believe federal workers should have offices safer than those in the private sector at the expense of the taxpayer. At Carmen's request, GSA Public Buildings Commissioner Richard O. Haase has reinstated procedures suspended last October that require leases to be negotiated with sprinklers and an elevator recall setup.
But Haase also reinstated a system of acquiring waivers from provisions that building owners don't want, such as sprinklers.
Such a waiver was issued to allow the National Weather Service building to be leased without sprinklers.
Carmen said he plans to "personally" review all waiver requests, which in the past were reviewed only in regional offices of GSA.