Is the Pentagon a fire trap?

The General Services Administration's Inspector General said, in an audit released in September, that faulty fire alarms, improper safety procedures and a lengthy list of other problems could "increase greatly employes' exposure to hazardous conditions." There are an estimated 33,000 civilian and military employes in the building.

The audit, which assessed how the GSA was progressing in clearing up fire-safety deficiencies in select areas throughout the country, focused most of its criticism on the agency's failure to respond to problems at the Pentagon. The IG's office said that the fire safety deficiencies were first detected in 1971 and were restudied in reports issued in 1973, 1978 and 1979 without proper corrective actions being taken.

GSA officials insist that most of the problems have been resolved by asking Congress for the funds necessary to overhaul the fire safety system.

"It hasn't been properly repaired or overhauled for years," said James G. Whitlock, GSA's regional public buildings commissioner. "That is true. But no one has been endangered." The audit says the building's "Autocall" fire system is "sufficiently obsolete" that it should be replaced and claims that it "neither meets minimum fire-safety requirements nor provides any assurance of continued operation."

The auditors, in their report on fire-safety deficiencies at the Pentagon, said that a "voice-message alarm system" that was designed to inform building occupants of a fire did not work, smoke detectors were not connected to the fire alarm system, other fire alarms did not automatically ring in the Arlington Fire Department, fire alarm bells were inoperative and a fire sprinkler system was not connected to the fire alarm system. In addition, the auditors said that records indicate that routine maintenance work was performed when it had not been, raising "concerns as to the accuracy of the maintenance records or the thoroughness of the maintenance work performed."

James Stewart, a special assistant to Public Buildings Commissioner Lester L. Mitchell, said the "system currently is not up to date according to current standards." The fire alarm system, Stewart said, is 90 percent effective. "I wouldn't want to give anyone an impression that the system is totally inoperative."

The auditors also took a second look at what the agency's Public Buildings Service had done in response to six previous audits, concluding that while "some steps have been taken in the regions to correct specific deficiencies . . . additional efforts are necessary to improve the administration of life- and fire-safety requirements."

Mitchell, who refused to be interviewed, said in a written response that accompanied the audit that funds for the new fire alarm system are in the fiscal 1985 budget and the agency is currently looking for an architect-engineer to plan the work. Construction is supposed to start in late 1985.

Over the past several years, criticism -- including futile complaints from former Washington regional administrator Bertrand G. Berube -- brought increasing high-level attention to fire-safety problems from the top levels of GSA's bureaucracy. Berube, a whistle-blower about problems at GSA for years, eventually was fired for what the agency said was his attempt to mislead people, including the press, about the extent of the problem.

"It fire- and life-safety is a continuous problem because the Reagan administration, and former GSA administrator Gerald P. Carmen, did not want to devote the money and the resources necessary to combat the problems," Berube said recently. "They were willing to play with the lives of government employes in exchange for the saving of a few bucks."

GSA's Whitlock said Berube's point of view is exaggerated.

The other findings in the audit include criticism of GSA's operation of a supposedly automated emergency response center. The auditors said the sophisticated system was designed to operate by computer but was being operated by a $35,000-a-year employe during working hours in both normal and emergency situations.

"In one instance, discussions with operating employes, their supervisors on the job, the GSA mechanical inspector and building management personnel revealed that no one had a complete, comprehensive understanding of the emergency control center and its supporting systems," the auditors said.

The auditors also found that there were no written instructions for either normal or emergency operating procedures at the government's three heating plants, at 12th Street SW, in Georgetown and next to the Pentagon.

"As a result," the audit states, "plant operators had no formal procedures to rely on for either starting up, shutting down or the handling of emergency situations such as steam line ruptures." The auditors suspected that had the procedures been in place, "outages of the complete District Heating System in Washington, D.C., such as those which occurred on Oct. 27, Nov. 21 and Nov. 25, 1983, might have been averted."

And the auditors found lease enforcement problems at the Gramax Building in Silver Spring, where a devastating $1 million fire in 1983 destroyed two floors of the National Weather Service headquarters. The auditors said that the fire might not have occurred had GSA safety inspectors and GSA contracting officials enforced lease provisions.

"Lease enforcement inspections were not being conducted, and no action had been taken to force the lessor to complete the work," the auditors said. This happened, the audit states, despite a 15-year-old federal regulation that gives GSA the right to withhold rent for fire- and life-safety repairs that are not made in a timely fashion and in conformance with a lease, the auditors said. "Full monthly rental had been made to the lessor," they found. The work, which involved removing flammable ceiling panels, has now been completed, GSA's Whitlock said.

The auditor suggested that Mitchell develop new "monetary sanctions" against lessors who do not handle fire- and life-safety deficiencies promptly.

Stewart said that he was "certain" that GSA has regularly docked the rent of building owners who did not live up to contractual terms but could offer no specifics, despite having several days to research the issue.

Mitchell, in his written reply to the auditors, said GSA "does not believe that additional lease clauses are necessary," saying that the fire forced the agency to issue a strengthened provision of the 15-year-old clause last December. The auditors said, in their report, that the review "would indicate there is more that needs to be done to enforce lease requirements." CAPTION: Picture, Officer John W. Brooks(seated) and alarm technician Paul Weishaupt man the fire-control center at the June about cost data; he later testified under subpoena.

Fitzgerald was fired from the Pentagon in 1969 after he disclosed to Congress large cost increases in contracts for the C5 cargo plane. He returned to the Air Force two years ago after he and the Air Force settled a lawsuit he filed.

Yesterday, Sherick said, among other things, the Pentagon auditors had found faulty B52 wing bolts, substandard metal for Navy ships and defective parachute cord. Deputy Defense Secretary William Howard Taft IV stressed that the inspector general "works for us" and said it is "a difficult, painful process for us" because "we wish there weren't as many problems as they're able to fix."