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.

Past Columns
Ground Zero

August 21, 2019

Fire and Frost

August 14, 2019

The Fury and the Folly

August 7, 2019

Due East II

July 31, 2019

The Real Social Network

July 17, 2019

Due East

July 3, 2019

Thin Green Line

June 26, 2019

A Journeyman’s Journey

June 12, 2019

Her Story

June 5, 2019

Do Overs

May 29, 2019

E Pluribus Unum

May 15, 2019

The Millworks

May 8, 2019

State of the County

May 1, 2019

A Change in Climate

April 24, 2019

The Raucous Caucus

April 17, 2019

Dragged

April 10, 2019

Edge City

April 3, 2019

Fixing the Fix

March 27, 2019

Events
Today
The Spitfire Grill

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center Mainstage

Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

Skagit Guided Adventures

12:00pm|Skyline Marina

An Iliad

7:30pm|Maritime Heritage Park

Skagit Tours

10:53pm|Highway 20.

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Seaside BBQ

5:30pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Ferndale Street Festival

6:00pm|Downtown Ferndale

The Phantom Tollbooth

7:00pm|BAAY Theater

Sin & Gin Tours

7:00pm|Downtown Bellingham, historic Fairhaven

Dynamic Duos

9:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Skagit Tours

10:53pm|Highway 20.

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Post #154

Fidalgo Bay Day

9:00am|Fidalgo Bay Resort

Lake Whatcom Park Trail Build

9:00am|Lake Whatcom Park

Twin Sisters Farmers Markets

9:00am|North Fork Library

Anacortes Farmers Market

9:00am|Depot Arts Center

Concrete Saturday Market

9:00am|Concrete Community Center

Mount Vernon Farmers Market2333

9:00am|Riverwalk Park

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

The art of arrangement

10:00am

The Flower Festival

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Sumas Writers Group

10:00am|Sumas Library

Lynden Farmers Market

10:00am|Centennial Park

Blaine Gardeners Market

10:00am|H Street Plaza

Lummi Island Saturday Market

10:00am

Airfest

10:30am|Bellingham International Airport

Cemetery Tours

11:00am|Lynden Cemetery

Weavings Pop-Up Sale

11:00am|Vida Nueva Rugs

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Modern Quilts Final Weekend

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Lightcatcher Building

Sumi Fun for All Ages

1:00pm|Museum of Northwest Art

Summer Jazz Combo

2:00pm|Jansen Art Center

The Poetic Apothecary with Judith Adams

3:00pm|Upper Skagit Library

Nooksack River Walk

3:00pm|Horseshoe Bend Trailhead

Summer Fun in the Park

4:00pm|Blaine's Marine Park

Janie Cribbs and the T.Rust Band

5:30pm|Heart of Anacortes

Seaside BBQ

5:30pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Lummi Island Crabfest Dinner

6:00pm|Lummi Island Grange Hall

Sin & Gin Tours

7:00pm|Downtown Bellingham, historic Fairhaven

Skagit Tours

10:53pm|Highway 20.

Tomorrow
The Spitfire Grill

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center Mainstage

Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

Skagit Guided Adventures

12:00pm|Skyline Marina

Skagit Tours

10:53pm|Highway 20.

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

The Phantom Tollbooth

7:00pm|BAAY Theater

Skagit Tours

10:53pm|Highway 20.

Weavings Pop-Up Sale

11:00am|Vida Nueva Rugs

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Modern Quilts Final Weekend

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Lightcatcher Building

Seaside BBQ

5:30pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Sin & Gin Tours

7:00pm|Downtown Bellingham, historic Fairhaven

Skagit Tours

10:53pm|Highway 20.

Birchwood Farmers Market

10:00am|Park Manor Shopping Center

Langar in Lynden

11:00am| Guru Nanak Gursikh Gurdwara

Community Free Market

11:00am|Flora Street

Dog Days of Summer

11:00am|Whatcom Humane Society

Bellingham Handmade Market

11:00am|Goods Nursery and Produce

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Big Band Bonanza

12:00pm|Fairhaven Village Green

Skagit History Cruise

1:00pm|La Conner Channel Lodge

Summerfest

1:00pm| Josh Vander Yacht Memorial Park

La Conner Live!

1:00pm|Gilkey Square

Skagit History Cruise

1:00pm|La Conner Channel Lodge

Audubon at the Museum

1:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

International Concerts on the Border

2:00pm|Radost Folk Ensemble

Monday
Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

Skagit Tours

10:53pm|Highway 20.

Skagit Tours

10:53pm|Highway 20.

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Skagit Tours

10:53pm|Highway 20.

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Bark Week

12:00pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Camp Korey Classic Golf Tournament

12:00pm|Eaglemont Golf Course

Poetrynight

7:00pm|Alternative Library

Open Mic Night

7:00pm|Village Books

Guffawingham

9:00pm|Firefly Lounge

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