The Gristle

Where’s There’s Smoke

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

WHERE’S THERE’S SMOKE: Sparks flew last week between the legislative and executive branches of Whatcom County government over continued friction around an unsafe jail.

In his annual report to Whatcom County Council last month, and in a more detailed follow-up with them, Sheriff Bill Elfo outlined serious safety deficiencies observed during a fire drill conducted at the jail in June by the Bellingham Fire Department.

“Even with the now functional deluge system,” Elfo reported, “toxic smoke is the overwhelming hazard to inmates and corrections staff.”

Council received an update of the Fire Marshal’s dismal report on the drill this week.

“My concern is that with no smoke evacuation system in the jail and even with the HVAC system shut down, the toxic smoke would leak into the other housing units, panicking an already reactionary group of people,” Elfo noted in his remarks to Council. “There are fire doors linking each set of housing units to each other so that offenders could be moved within the security side of the second floor all of the way from one end of the jail to the other; however, the fire doors cannot be opened automatically. They are all key lock, which means deputies having to go into all of the units to unlock the doors, then direct the inmates to the far end,” Elfo reported. “It would also mean all of the inmates would wind up in a unit meant for 24 people with up to 128 crowded into the space, including all security classifications.”

The consultants’ report on the inadequacy of the current facility noted that “smoke evacuation was a code requirement at the time of construction but was not installed. The lack of a smoke evacuation system is a significant code violation that jeopardizes life safety of the occupants. Past smoke events prove how quickly the housing units can fill with smoke.

“All of the new work can be performed but at a high construction cost and significant disruption to operations,” Design2Last consultants warned in their 2017 report. “Maintaining security in this active jail facility during this major renovation appears to be a non-starter, and funding may be better saved for the new construction.”

In comments to the Bellingham Herald, Council Chair Rud Browne characterized the repairs underway at the current jail as a logistical nightmare with the need to move inmates to allow repair crews to work during restricted hours. He said it’s been a balancing act between spending money on repairing the current facility to make sure it’s safe, but also to avoid wasting money if there will be a new facility in the future.

“We have to replace it,” Browne said, “because the existing one is a death trap and we have to replace it because it’s simply an unacceptable environment for anyone to be in.”

“This repair has been ignored since 1984,” Council member Todd Donovan noted in separate remarks. “Yes, it’s at least $6 million now and will involve substantial displacement of folks held in the jail, but regardless of what we eventually build, it will be several years before this facility is no longer needed. This remains the most important repair for this facility,” Donovan observed. 

Stung by the characterization of the jail as a “death trap” and the accusation that the administration had been slow-walking vital safety maintenance, the comments drew the rebuke of the County Executive.

“Remember,” Jack Louws retorted, “that we did not move on the smoke evacuation system as it required parts of the roof to be removed. This would be almost impossible to do in an occupied facility, as we would be cutting through structural concrete roof panels.

“I knew in high likelihood that the day was coming when someone from the Council was going to have selective amnesia regarding the decisions moving forward with renovations with the existing jail,” Louws continued, “so I had instructed my staff from the onset to make sure the Council has partnered with the administration on all the major decisions regarding scope of work and contracts, and I’m happy to inform you that you were in attendance and voted favorably to extend Design2Last contract to include about 18 items of work, without funding the specific option of $77,360 to further study the smoke evacuation system.

“When I say ‘we’ made the decision,” the Executive noted in additional remarks to Donovan, “I mean the Council and administration made the decision. You had the same reports I had from Design2Last, you had ample opportunity to comment and argue for the additional scope of work that was presented, and you did not. You voted for what we are doing now. If you having full knowledge of, and voting for the contract does not in your mind constitute being part of ‘we’ in the decision, I suggest you resign from the council, as you are not adding value.”

Louws said afterward he regretted the heated exchange, and said the pressing decisions to repair (at great cost) an aging, overcrowded and unsafe jail while all involved recognize a new jail is required has placed a great deal of strain on the collegial branches of government.

“I’m as frustrated as you are trying to find solutions to the jail,” Louws admitted. “I don’t like any of the decisions regarding the existing facility, but it is what we have. Therefore, I am probably too sensitive to what I perceive as criticism regarding my actions concerning the existing jail as I have no good ideas to solve it. It will be your responsibility shortly,” he said, referencing his departure as his term ends in December.

This executive’s fire is banked, but the jail’s costly issues will continue to smolder for many years.

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