Is this building safe?

July 16, 2008 9:34:11 PM PDT
Even judges are worried about the safety of the 20-story high Harris County Criminal Courthouse. We first told you Tuesday night about the mishandling of a fire last month in that courthouse.

You may have seen the TV commercial from Houston attorney Jim Lindeman. He's not alone.

"I have concerns about the safety of this building and the operations of this building and I don't think I'm alone in that," said the Honorable Debbie Stricklin of the 180th Criminal Court.

Last June's fire hasn't helped. It was put out by fire sprinklers, but county building officials waited four hours to call the fire department.

"It was two and a half hours. It doesn't matter, there was a time lapse, I agree," said Soumya Rege with the Harris County Facilities Management.

It matters at the courthouse.

"That is so unbelievable," Judge Stricklin told us.

The master key wasn't even in the building.

It took more than an hour and half to find and turn off a sprinkler. Damage spread to 18 floors. The judges' security elevator is still out of order.

"There's a lot of damage to a lot of offices," Judge Stricklin said. "It could have been a very dangerous situation and we are not getting answers."

Taxpayers will pay the safety lapses.

"I have little or no confidence in that department's ability to manage day to day operations much less the emergency situations that could arise in this building," Stricklin said.

Last January a fire inspector found no record the courthouse sprinkler system had been tested since 2002.

"That's scary, that's scary," Judge Stricklin said. "This is a high rise. There are thousands of people in this building every day."

In February dozens of violations were issued including citations for illegally locked exit doors and poor staff training.

"There were a couple of lessons learned," said Frank Arriola with the Houston Fire Marshal's Office.

This morning the line to get in stretched out the door, but it's the ability to get out of a crowded building that continues to haunt the people who work there.

"It's disconcerting to say the least," Stricklin said.

There's only one emergency pull station on each side of the floors and they are not next to exit doors. They are down the hall. And you can't even get to some of the exit doors because they are down locked hallways.

It was approved for security reasons, but even fire inspectors think it could be safer. And it's clear they're keeping an eye on the criminal courthouse.

"My concern with this building is that the potential is there," Arriola said.

And concern for the criminal building has put the issue of safety of county buildings in focus. Inspectors are checking out safety at the family law center and civil courthouse.

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