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
War Waged on Two Fronts

December 11, 2019

Work Horse, Not Show Horse

December 4, 2019

Toward A Housing Summit

November 27, 2019

Dueling Data

November 20, 2019

Of Apples and Barrels

November 13, 2019

Hide the Money

October 30, 2019

Anchors Are Weighed

October 23, 2019

A Working Waterfront?

October 15, 2019

Keep Working

October 9, 2019

Signs of Hate

October 2, 2019

Trust Gap

September 25, 2019

Netse Mot

September 18, 2019

A Rising Tide

September 11, 2019

The Power of Change

September 4, 2019

Hands Against Hate

August 28, 2019

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

Events
Today
Holiday Pet Food Drive

10:00am|Whatcom County

Deck the Old City Hall

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Giving Tree

9:00am|Village Books

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am

The Naughty List Market and Cabaret

2:00pm|Broadway Hall

Miracle Pop-Up Holiday Cocktail Bar

4:00pm|Swim Club

Treasure Island

7:00pm|Sehome High School Theater

Shrek the Musical

7:00pm|Burlington-Edison High School

Crazy for You

7:30pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

Number the Stars

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

A Christmas Carol

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Wild Things

9:30am|Connelly Creek Nature Area

Toys for Tots

10:00am

Pacific Arts Market

10:00am| Sunset Square

Holiday Tea

11:00am|Willowbrook Manor

Holiday Craft Bazaar

3:30pm|Lynden Library

Drayton Harbor Shellebration

4:00pm|G Street Plaza

Gingerbread House Making

4:30pm|Ferndale Library

Valley Made Holiday Market

5:00pm|Maplehurst Farm

Christmas on the Docks

5:00pm|Cap Sante Marina

Wonderland Walk

5:00pm|Washington Park

Photos and Stories with James K. Papp

5:00pm|Gallery Pegasus

Kids Night Out @ Western

6:00pm|Western Washington University

Honk! The Musical

7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

Lost Feast

7:00pm|Village Books

Christmastime is Here with Skagit Symphony

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Narnia the Musical

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Darkness and Light

7:30pm|St. James Presbyterian Church

Tarnation and Holiday Games

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Tomorrow
Holiday Pet Food Drive

10:00am|Whatcom County

Deck the Old City Hall

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Giving Tree

9:00am|Village Books

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am

Miracle Pop-Up Holiday Cocktail Bar

4:00pm|Swim Club

Treasure Island

7:00pm|Sehome High School Theater

Shrek the Musical

7:00pm|Burlington-Edison High School

Crazy for You

7:30pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

A Christmas Carol

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Number the Stars

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Pacific Arts Market

10:00am| Sunset Square

Toys for Tots

10:00am

Holiday Tea

11:00am|Willowbrook Manor

Valley Made Holiday Market

5:00pm|Maplehurst Farm

Wonderland Walk

5:00pm|Washington Park

Christmas on the Docks

5:00pm|Cap Sante Marina

Honk! The Musical

7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

Narnia the Musical

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Tarnation and Holiday Games

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Darkness and Light

7:30pm|St. James Presbyterian Church

NSEA Work Party

9:00am

Breakfast with Santa

9:00am|Sedro-Woolley Community Center

Fairhaven Winterfest

10:00am|Historic Fairhaven

Winter Faire

10:00am|Whatcom Hills Waldorf School

Winter Arts & Crafts Festival

10:00am|Pioneer Park Pavilion

Sumas Book Club

10:00am|Sumas Library

Old-Fashioned Christmas Market

10:00am|Friday Harbor Brickworks

Award-Winning Book Club

10:30am|Lynden Library

Mastering Wisteria

10:30am|Full Bloom Farm

Snow Geese of Skagit

10:30am|Christianson's Nursery

Your Life is a Story Writers Group

10:30am| South Whatcom Library

Winter Wonderland Gift Gala

11:00am|Carnation Building

Saltadena Celebration

11:00am|Saltadena Bakery

Holiday Craft Bazaars

11:30am

Holiday Maker's Market

12:00pm|Terramar Brewing and Distilling

Festive Feasting Reception

1:00pm|Good Earth Pottery

Holiday Tea and Crafts

1:00pm|North Fork Library

Holiday Joy with Fidalgo Youth Symphony

1:00pm|McIntyre Hall

Teen Art Fair

2:00pm|Blaine Library

Shrinking the Worry Monster

2:00pm|Village Books

Big Holiday reds tasting

2:00pm|eifert & Jones Wine Merchants

Birding for Kids

2:30pm

Bowman Bay Holiday

3:00pm|Bowman Bay

Noel Ensemble

3:00pm|Jansen Art Center

A Deep Dive Into Eve Deisher's Psyche

3:00pm|Museum of Northwest Art

One Meditation

4:00pm| Boulevard Park

The Nativity

6:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Early Railroads of Whatcom County

7:00pm|Village Books

Holiday History Hi-Jinks

7:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Contra Dance

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Center Into Solstice

7:00pm|Cafe Blue

Heralding Christmas with Skagit Valley Chorale

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Winter Solstice Concert with SeaMuse

7:30pm|Firehouse Arts and Events Center

The Kelley World Tour

7:30pm|Lummi Island Library

Cidertails with Alexine Langdon

7:30pm|housand Acre Cider House

Sunday
Holiday Pet Food Drive

10:00am|Whatcom County

Deck the Old City Hall

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Giving Tree

9:00am|Village Books

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am

Miracle Pop-Up Holiday Cocktail Bar

4:00pm|Swim Club

Crazy for You

7:30pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

Number the Stars

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Pacific Arts Market

10:00am| Sunset Square

Valley Made Holiday Market

5:00pm|Maplehurst Farm

Christmas on the Docks

5:00pm|Cap Sante Marina

Honk! The Musical

7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

Narnia the Musical

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Winter Wonderland Gift Gala

11:00am|Carnation Building

The Nativity

6:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Heralding Christmas with Skagit Valley Chorale

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Sedro-Woolley Community Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Post #43

Langar in Lynden

11:00am| Guru Nanak Gursikh Gurdwara

Celtic Yuletide

3:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Scarlett and Dicey

4:00pm|Village Books

Vaudevillingham

7:00pm|Cirque Lab

see our complete calendar »