Fired up at the criminal courthouse

July 16, 2008 9:34:19 PM PDT
13 Undercover learned the fire department has handed out tickets for fire code violations at the Harris County Criminal Courthouse. But you know who'll have to pay the fines? You will. What do you do when multiple fire alarms are going off? You call the fire department. Tell that to the folks we pay to safeguard our $100 million criminal courthouse.

There was water damage from the 18th floor all the way down to the basement. Some courtrooms couldn't be used for days. But ask about last June's courthouse fire and you get this.

"All systems worked, the fire was extinguished, the sprinkler system did come on. That's what it was supposed to do," said Soumya Rege with the Harris County Facilities Management.

Now you'll get the rest of the story.

"The system didn't work because no one called the fire department," said Frank Arriola with the Houston Fire Marshal's Office. "They had so many opportunities to call the fire department."

That's right, when multiple alarms went off in your more than $100 million investment, no one, not county 911, or security, or building officials bothered to call the fire department.

Arriola said it was close to four hours before the fire department was called. Others disagree.

"It was two and a half hours. It doesn't matter, there was a time lapse, I agree," said Rege.

County building officials claim they didn't call the fire department because the fire was out. Just one problem, a Houston arson report proves they couldn't have possibly known that.

3:15am - The fire alarm was going off. No one calls the fire department.

3:31am - (16 minutes later) 911 notified the downtown building engineer.

When he arrived he "noticed numerous mixed problems on the 18th floor."

His first act wasn't to call HFD, but to try to reset the alarms.

"That's tampering with the fire equipment there," said Arriola.

There's a visit to the 18th floor, "he did not smell smoke or see visual smoke."

Around 47 minutes after the fire alarm sounded, there was a call of a bad water leak on the 12th floor.

Water travelled at least six stories...

"Before we could identify the source," Rege said.

There's a second visit to 18, "Now there was the smell of smoke ... water gushing underneath a door."

But the master key to open that office wasn't in the building. It took two trips down the street to find the right one.

"We didn't have any reason to have it there ... we never ... No, we didn't have then. We have it now," Rege told us.

Except it's the law for high rises to have a fire box with master keys in it.

By the time one sprinkler had cut off, it had spread water damage to 18 floors. Oh, there's something else in the fire box. The location of the sprinkler cut-off valve.

"We didn't have to have that much water damage because fire department would have been there they would have ... when they determined that the sprinkler had extinguished the fire, they would have put a stop to flow of water to that sprinkler head," Arriola said.

"We don't have confirmation of that, the sprinkler would have been turned off faster," Rege said.

"Had it not had sprinklers, we could have lost a big chunk of that building," Arriola said.

Last January a fire inspector made the county check its sprinklers. A report says the annual sprinkler system test hadn't happened since "2002 according to tag."

The fire department has handed out citations. One of them was "staff poorly trained."

But the system worked, just ask Soumya Rege.

"Who pays to fix this building," I asked.

"We pay out of our operations budget," Rege replied.

I noted that we ends up being the taxpayer.

What will the damage bill be? A month after the fire, no one at the county seems to have a number, but we'll stay on it.

Wednesday night, a history of trouble. Is that building really safe?

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