Crime and Courts: Fire marshal says Capitol security measures pose safety risk

2011-05-24T14:00:00Z 2012-05-22T17:49:00Z Crime and Courts: Fire marshal says Capitol security measures pose safety riskSTEVEN ELBOW | The Capital Times |

Madison's fire marshal says security measures at the state Capitol are a potential fire trap, but a spokeswoman for the Madison Fire Department says the state isn't doing anything about it.

The spokeswoman, Lori Wirth, says doors that have been locked in the wake of protesters that swarmed the Capitol early this year could create a bottleneck in the event of a fire or other emergency.

"Ed Ruckriegel, our fire marshal, has actually talked to the Department of Administration and as of right now they don't seem to be prepared to change anything they're doing," Wirth says. "That's a concern for us."

I haven't been to the Capitol for awhile, so this morning I went to take a look for myself. While I could have used a press pass to get in, I waited in line with the regular folks at one of the two entrance points. It took 15 minutes to get to the metal detector. The only difference between the Capitol and an airline terminal is that I didn't have to take off my shoes.

Once inside, I asked the guy at the information booth about the exits. While you can leave by any of the eight street-level exits, only one of the three outer doors at each exit is unlocked.

"It could be on the right, it could be on the left. It depends on the exit," the guy told me.

So in the event of a fire, people could pour through doors into the small entryway that is flanked by two sets of doors, but they could only get out by filing out whatever exit door happens to be unlocked.

The problem evokes images of busloads of panicked school kids, who tour the Capitol regularly, crammed helplessly against locked doors as they flee a raging inferno.

"The expectation is that the exits are obvious and would require no special knowledge to use," reads an inspection report supplied by Wirth. "The exit signs for this building are back down the hallway in the wing. The public expectation is that these signs direct you to exits. Some of the doors are not clearly marked, some are, some are misleading."

The report continues: "Robin Zentner of the Department of Administration's State Facilities Division indicated that the matter is currently in the courts, and that action is delayed."

Union interests have filed a lawsuit against the state over access to the Capitol, which traditionally has been unrestricted. Since the protests, only two of the eight Capitol entrances have been open, and those entering must pass through metal detectors.

A hearing on the lawsuit was scheduled for today, but has been postponed until the judge in the case makes a ruling on whether or not to allow a mediator to look into it, a move both sides have supported.

According to Joe Hertel, the program manager for fire prevention at the Department of Commerce, his department might be able to enforce fire codes at the Capitol.

"I believe we could, but I think what I'm probably going to end up doing is probably giving you to our public information officer," he tells me.

That officer, Barbro McGinn, didn't immediately return a phone message, nor did the PR folks at the Department of Administration. So it's unclear what, if anything, the state might do to address Ruckriegel's safety concerns. 

Wirth says the Madison Fire Department, which would undoubtedly be dispatched to any emergency situation at the Capitol, has no jurisdiction to enforce its findings of code violations.

But in the past, when Madison fire inspectors pointed out violations, "it usually gets fixed," Wirth says. "In this case, the indication from the Department of Administration is that for right now, they're not planning to make any changes or corrections for the things we've pointed out to them."

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