UH continues to remedy state fire code violations
Fire safety is not on the back burner of the University, though several fire code violations still need remedies after a September inspection.
"We’re a resource-challenged university and we have to be creative and we have to stretch dollars as much as we can," said David Irvin, vice president of Plant Operations.
The Texas State Fire Marshal ‘s Office found 120 violations at the University in its Sept. 17 inspection, according to the SFMO. A second inspection was performed in mid-October for the UH Health Science Center. That report has not been completed yet, according to the FMO.
"It’s a multi-year task, and the small costs can be fixed quickly," Irvin said. "Major items are done when we do renovations."
The SFMO, which consists of a team of 12 inspectors for the entire state, inspects state-owned facilities to help maintain safety, said Richard Bishop, SFMO director of Fire Safety Inspections.
"It’s difficult to constantly inspect buildings with a limited number of man power," Bishop said. "(But) the University, however, is constantly checking their own grounds…. (SFMO) is an oversight group to make sure the University is taking care of business in the local level."
He said the SFMO adds a new perspective on problems that plague campuses.
"When we look at the University, we’re putting on a fresh set of eyes, and sometimes when you look around day by day you might not notice the little things," Bishop said.
The SFMO deals only with state-owned institutions such as state-run hospitals and higher-education institutions, Bishop said. Privately owned buildings and universities are within the city’s jurisdiction when it comes to fire safety, Bishop said.
"What we do is we identify violations that we found and then work with the University to prioritize what should be taken care of first," Bishop said.
While FMO finds the violations within a given building, it is the responsibility of the University to remedy them, Bishops said.Bishop said it’s difficult to compare two sets of violations when deciding what should take precedence. Buildings with high occupancy rates usually take priority, he said.
SFMO classifies violations into three categories: Means of Egress, Protection and Building Service Violations.
Means of Egress violations pertain to anything that obstructs or hinders the evacuation process when people flee for their safety, Bishop said.
Criteria for the categories come from the National Fire Protection Association, he said. SFMO adopted the NFPA standards so their inspection results would be consistent, Bishop said.
The University had 52 Means of Egress violations, according to the report.
Hofheinz Pavilion topped the list in this category with five violations that include three inoperative exit signs and only one exit from the dirt floor training room.
The Fine Arts Building, Melcher Gymnasium and the Bates Law Building all had four violations in the same category.
The University had 58 violations in the Protection Violation category, which Bishop said included fire protection systems, such as fire alarms and sprinklers, the separation of hazardous from non-hazardous materials and obstacles to the spread of fire in a building.
The Athletics/Alumni Center had the most violations in this category with seven, according to the inspection report. The violations range from a storage room with faulty closing mechanisms, items too close to sprinkler heads and "unsealed floor and wall penetrations." The holes can allow heat and flames to spread throughout the building, according to the report.
The Old Science Building, Hoffman Hall and the Fleming Building each had four violations in the same category. Room 116, Hoffman Hall, has a large hole in the wall that extends to the roof deck, according to the report.
Violations in the Fleming Building include chemicals improperly stored in open containers and on countertops in various laboratories, such as Room 104, 127 and 211, according to the report. Also, the last service date of the CO2 system in stockroom 32 was May 1997.
The University had only nine Building Service violations, according to the report.
Building Service violations, Bishop said, include the inspection of mechanical and electrical equipment such as heating, gas and wiring systems in a given building.
All of the nine buildings, which include the Roy G. Cullen Memorial, the Technology Annex and the Science and Research 1 Building, had one violation each.
The University had one violation in the Special Provision category, a category reserved for specific types of buildings such as underground and high-rise edifices.
Of the 45 buildings included in the September inspection, the Fleming Building topped the list with a total of eight violations, which covered all three categories. Four of the violations fell under the Protection Violation category and three from the Egress Violation category.
The Athletics/Alumni Center had seven violations, while Hofheinz Pavilion and Hoffman Hall had six violations each, according to the report.
Bishop said buildings not included in the September report – the Communication Building, the Moores School of Music Building, the Moody Towers and the Quadrangle, among others – had fixed their violations from the previous inspection in 2005.
Bishop also said it’s difficult to compare universities side by side because of various factors.
"It’s hard to measure universities against each other because of the diversity and size that each has," Bishop said. "There have been some cases where we’ve been to smaller universities and have found many violations."
Plant Operations and the UHFMO constantly review the University for violations, UH Fire Marshal Robert Bowden said.
Irvin said Plant Operations tests fire alarms and sprinklers systems four times per year and completes one comprehensive survey once per year.
The last comprehensive survey by Plant Operations was done in October.
Bishop said sometimes it’s easier, and more effective, to have one solution for many violations within a building than to correct the numerous errors, but noted this depends on a case-by-case basis.
"Sprinkler systems can sometimes be a simple solution for buildings that require extensive restructuring," Bishop said. "Sometimes they’re even put in buildings that don’t require them, but they provide another level of safety."
State law mandates high-rise buildings, defined as seven stories or higher, and residential buildings have sprinkler systems, Bishop said. Universities either install them or decide to close the violating facilities down, he said.
The University of Texas has sprinkler systems in all its buildings, and the University is on course to do the same, he said. But the University has been making strides toward this goal for a while, he said.
"When (the SFMO) started going around checking on the sprinkler systems, the (Moody Towers) already had sprinklers before it was mandated," Bishop said.
Another solution that would help fire code violations would be communication, Bowden said, and education is critical in reducing the number of violations.
The UH FMO gives fire safety education courses for residential advisors and for teacher and lab assistants, people who handle hazardous chemicals, he said.
"I would love to train all the students on campus, but that would be a full-time job," Bowden said.
As far as budget, Irvin said UH was the first university to make sure all of its residence halls had up-to-date fire alarm systems, and the University spent $32.4 million on safety in 1999.
Plant Operations has a fire safety shop where its sole purpose is to fix fire code violations, Irvi
n said. These renovations are in the same budget as regular maintenance, such as roof and plumbing repairs.
Plant Operation sets aside $10 million per fiscal year for large-scale improvements. Large building improvements, special projects such as improving lighting and fire safety maintenance all draw money from this budget, Irvin said.
Plant operations tries to allocate at least 5 percent of the deferred maintenance budget to fire safety, Irvin said. But in recent years, it’s been closer to 15 percent.
"If we don’t have a major crisis, then we’ll take some money in the contingency and fund some additional programs," he said.
Irvin said the budget for fire safety maintenance has increased in recent years. Prior to 1999, the University didn’t spend as much on fire safety as it does now, he said.
Small maintenance needs, such as fixing door hardware or removing pieces of glass, are remedied by individual buildings, but bigger projects are handled through the University, Irvin said.
"(Plant Operations) does big-ticket items that colleges and departments can’t," Irvin said. "Fire alarm systems can run from $100,000 up to $800,000 or $900,000 depending on the building.
"(Plant Operations) sits down with the SFMO and we see through the list which is the biggest risk…. And then we prioritize and allocated money accordingly."
Bowden said while 120 violations might seem excessive, considering the number of buildings and size of the University, it’s pretty low.
In addition to the University’s own budget, the State Legislature has given the University $57 million to renovate the science buildings, Irvin said. Twenty-five percent will be set aside for safety and fire code enhancement.