City Hall a Scofflaw on Fire Sprinklers

Enforcement waivers anticipate new civic center complex

When it comes to fire safety laws, San Diego's city hall technically is no longer 'street legal', according to city fire officials.

Most of the building -- opened in 1965 -- lacks automatic fire sprinklers required of highrise structures since 1986.

The City Council has been waiving enforcement of the sprinkler law for intervals of up to five years on the rationale of not spending money to retrofit the building because a new civic center complex is in the offing.

"As a public official, I feel uncomfortable invitng the public into the public's house," said Councilwoman Marti Emerald during a Monday hearing on a proposed two-year extension of the enforcement waiver. "Because we're putting the public at risk, I think."

The most recent waiver expired December 31st after the Council deadlocked 4 to 4 on a two-year extension, prompting Monday's hearing aimed at rectifying the ongoing violation of the sprinkler law.

Only three occupied floors and the basement of the building are outfitted with working sprinklers.

Fire Dept. ladder trucks are in short supply, and can only reach as high as the 7th floor.

Helicopter rescues could be tricky and time-sensitive.

Mayor Sanders' staff estimates the cost of fully installing sprinklers throughout city hall at upwards of $5 million -- a figure Council members dismissed as unrealistically low at a time when money is tight.

"It feels like a really crummy position to put us in," said Councilman Todd Gloria. "Whether we value the safety of our employees or if we want to take infrastructure money from somewhere else to retrofit a building that's clearly inadequate."

The Council voted 7 to 1 to table the issue for three more weeks, to await staff reports on the city's legal liability, detailed retrofit costs and past fire incidents at City Hall.

But with a new civic center complex projected to cost $740 million, there may not be much more patience to bide time until the project is feasible before committing funds to full sprinkler coverage.

"I don't want to be on record that I'm putting this thing back or delaying it," said Councilman Tony Young   "Because I think as difficult as it may be, we have the responsbility to take care of this."

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