'We Had To Get It Right'
The former Chief Fire Marshal for the U.S. Capitol recounts the critical acceptance testing process for the $621 million Capitol Visitor Center—and what it was like to have Congress watching over his shoulder
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2010
By Kenneth Lauziere
In all my years in fire protection with the Office of the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) in Washington, D.C., no project that I was involved with was as intense or as politically fraught as the final stages of the construction of the United States Capitol Visitor Center (CVC), which opened to the public in December, 2008. During the construction and fit out of the CVC—a structure of more than half a million square feet, its three levels located entirely underground—countless negotiations and meetings between a plethora of designers, contractors, and Congressional committees were held to decide on the materials, means, and methods to be used to assemble the CVC and its fire- and life-safety systems. Over a period of several years, I was called before the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, the Senate Rules Committee, the House Administration Committee, the Capitol Preservation Commission, the United States Capitol Police Board, and more to explain, and urge support for, my position on how the fire alarm and detection systems should be configured, programmed, and tested. It was my intent to configure those systems to fully meet the requirements of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®, while still accommodating the unique needs of Congress’s deliberative process. Unnecessary alarm activations, for example, could not be tolerated, since they could conceivably interrupt the business of Congress, and my goal was to prevent interruptions by testing the limits of the systems.
By then, I’d been around Capitol Hill for a long time. Prior to being appointed Chief Fire Marshal, in May, 2001, I’d spent 22 years with the AOC in fire protection engineering. I’d also been a volunteer firefighter for 30 years in Prince George’s County, Maryland, had decades of experience as a field instructor for the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, and was active in a long list of professional associations, including NFPA. In my fire protection engineering role at the Capitol, I had designed and overseen the installation of numerous fire detection, alarm, and sprinkler systems in most of the dozens of buildings that make up the complex, ranging from the Capitol and Supreme Court buildings to daycare centers and a power plant. My designs included the first fire alarm system to be installed in the Capitol, the massive fire sprinkler system protecting the stacks in the Library of Congress, and the first detection system for weaponized chemical agents, installed outside the House and Senate chambers (as well as other locations I can’t disclose) prior to the first war in Iraq. In the 1980s, following a fire that occurred in the private offices of the Speaker of the House James Wright (R-Texas), I set about achieving a model fire-safe capitol complex; as part of that effort, 14 historic buildings were equipped with more than 50,000 smoke detectors and voice annunciating alarm systems, while 13 of those buildings were retrofitted with automatic sprinkler protection. All of that experience was brought to bear in my work on the CVC. It was my intent to turn over a visitor center that would stand the test of time after completion of all required acceptance testing by the Fire Marshal Division.
At the outset of 2008, the CVC appeared to be all but completed. But final acceptance testing had yet to be conducted before I could issue a final Certificate of Occupancy. To complicate matters, the project’s designers and cost estimators had not budgeted any time for acceptance testing. There was widespread resistance to the idea that this step might be something more than a quick formality; some factions, including Congressional committee staff and AOC engineers, objected to the time and cost associated with this level of testing. A member of Congress, eager to see the building open, suggested to me that we could wrap up this final task “in a couple of weeks.” But it was imperative that the testing be done right. We didn’t really know how long the process would take until we assembled a comprehensive acceptance testing plan, which included every aspect of the building—fire protection systems, sub-systems, inter-related building components—comprising thousands of details. When we looked at the list, we estimated the testing would take three months if things went well, twice that if we ran into problems. Additional inspectors were contracted to supplement the Fire Marshal Division’s inspection staff of eight, and specific testing sequences were established to allow down time for contractor adjustment whenever anomalies were uncovered.
We began acceptance testing in April, 2008. I took a deep breath and hoped we could get it done in three months.
Putting It To the Test
Though the CVC is connected to the Capitol as a subterranean addition, it is actually a separate building with fire-rated barriers and its own set of egress components. The building is designed to serve as a secure public entry to the Capitol, and to provide office space and other facilities for members of Congress, their staffs, and Congressional committees. Located beneath the east lawn of Capitol Hill, the completed CVC encompasses more than 580,000 square feet (53,882 square meters)—of that, 170,000 square feet (15,793 square meters) is for Congressional use—and includes such amenities as two orientation theaters, an exhibit hall, a 450-seat auditorium, 26 public restrooms, and a 530-seat restaurant. The center’s total allowed occupant load is 6,000, roughly 4,000 of whom are visitors. Some 8,000 people, on average, visit the CVC daily, accounting for more than 2.4 million annual visitors.
A design for the building was finalized in 2000, and the groundbreaking ceremony occurred on June 20, 2000. Pre-construction began in the fall of 2001, and actual construction began in August 2002 with a budget of $265 million. By the time we began our acceptance testing, nearly six years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, most members of Congress were extremely eager to see the project finished; beset by construction delays, design changes, and monumental cost overruns, the CVC had become, to its legions of critics, a national symbol of government spending run amok, with the final bill topping $621 million. Everyone wanted it done yesterday, and it was hard to blame them.
It was against this politically charged backdrop that we began our acceptance testing. The test plan incorporated all of the requirements found in applicable sections of a wide range of NFPA codes, as well as specification-cited requirements that exceeded minimum fire and building codes. The testing itself presented a host of challenges. Since the CVC is attached to the Capitol, for example, there could be no production of sound from the fire alarm signaling system while the House or Senate was in session. As a result, almost all testing that created or had the possibility of creating noise was conducted at night. During late-night Congressional sessions, or during events like the State of the Union address, testing was suspended.
Of the approximately 300 discrete tests or inspections that we conducted as part of our acceptance testing process, more than 250 revealed some kind of problem that had to be fixed. The following is a brief selection that suggests the variety of the problems uncovered by the testing.
Sprinkler piping supports With the CVC’s heavy reliance on automatic sprinkler systems, every component and subsystem had to be inspected, tested, and verified in accordance with NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems. Among those components were the sprinkler piping supports—threaded rods anchored to the structure that connect to the sprinkler pipe, within 12 inches of the sprinkler—designed to prevent movement of the pipe system upon activation. For in-place inspection of these assemblies where we couldn’t remove the ceiling—such as areas where the ceiling was made of plaster or glass, or other areas that, due to architectural necessity, lacked access panels—we resorted to the use of an articulating borescope with videographic capability. Typically used to inspect welds inside pipes or to peer inside engines, the small-diameter borescope allowed our inspectors and engineers to view above-ceiling conditions via openings adjacent to automatic sprinklers; all they had to do was remove select sprinkler escutcheon plates. The inspections took place only at the end of sprinkler system branch lines, which would see the most potential movement when the system was activated—enough movement that the sprinkler could be pulled above the ceiling, preventing it from putting water on a fire.
There were perhaps a couple thousand locations inspected, and the process found hundreds of locations where the sprinkler support required by NFPA 13 was not acceptable. In many instances the solution involved only the installation of a support clip to prevent sprinkler movement, and while not an especially expensive fix—the clips cost maybe 15 cents apiece—it was costly in terms of the time and labor required. But the work did help produce a fully compliant sprinkler system.
Fire alarm system wiring and circuitry Since false or unnecessary alarm activations would force the evacuation of large numbers of people—including, conceivably, both chambers of Congress and their associated staffs—it was my intent to minimize unwarranted alarms as much as possible by ensuring that the system was fully compliant with NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®. I was instrumental in having inserted into the construction specifications a requirement to test the integrity of the fire alarm system’s wiring for open, shorted, or grounded conditions with a megaohm meter prior to connection of the wire to the approximately 10,000 field devices—fire alarms, heat detectors, smoke detectors, water flow switches, and more—located throughout the CVC.
Megaohm meters are typically used in the power-generation field, or to test the effectiveness of motor windings, and I thought they would provide an ideal test for the wiring of the CVC’s fire alarm system. During the numerous discussions that ensued prior to the start of this testing, skeptics insisted that the testing was unnecessary, or, worse, that it could damage the wire. In a final effort to convince the team that this test was both warranted and non-destructive, I brought a megaohm meter to one of our weekly project meetings. I took a coil of wire, hooked it up to the meter, and took a reading. Then I nicked the wire, and the new reading showed it wasn’t up to par, compared to the good wire. On the actual system, all testers would have to do was lift the conductors off the circuit boards at the control panels, connect the meter to the circuit and to ground, hit the “TEST” button, and read the result; any problem would be immediately apparent. Soon, the fire alarm system installer had purchased a megaohm meter and had begun testing all of the fire alarm system field wiring.
Of the thousands of locations tested, about 150 had opens, shorts, or grounds on them, meaning that if the alarm system had been turned on, parts of it would not have worked and would’ve been damaged. The shorts were located, and the faulty wiring replaced, typically 500–700 feet at a time.
NFPA 72, as well as NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code®, were instrumental when I required the testing of fault conditions when the fire alarm system was actually running. I wanted to be certain that it remained operational under the most arduous circumstances, such as an accidentally cut cable or a building collapse. To conduct this testing, we removed the devices from the junction box, placed a jumper across them to produce a short or induce a ground while looking at the fire alarm panel.
Despite assurances from the manufacturer, the project team, and agency staff that the fire alarm system’s architecture and installation was robust and fault tolerant, our testing uncovered significant shortcomings that had to be corrected. In some cases, an induced fault on fire alarm circuitry created trouble conditions that reported hundreds of devices being impaired, clearly a violation of NFPA 72. Corrective actions included style changes to select circuits and a decrease in the number of devices connected to a given circuit or module. In some cases, Class B circuits had to be reconfigured to make them Class A, meaning that a fault wouldn’t disable large parts of the system. The process took several months, and was the most time consuming and complicated part of the overall acceptance testing process, largely due to the specific operational architecture of the alarm system program. These types of conditions, however, proved the necessity and value of complete testing of any newly installed fire alarm system.
Smoke detector sensitivity Additionally, verifying the sensitivity level of each of the thousands of smoke detectors, in accordance with NFPA 72, was vital to overall system reliability and reduced susceptibility to nuisance alarms, especially considering the close proximity of the CVC to the Capitol. I was reminded of a meeting I had some years earlier with an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and the Marshal of the Court when I was designing the replacement fire alarm signaling system for the United States Supreme Court building. During our meeting, I was warned by the Justice that if the fire alarm system activated due to a false or unnecessary alarm, I would be cited for contempt of court. That admonition continued to resonate in me years later whenever I faced similar circumstances.
The manufacturer and others argued that this testing was unnecessary, since the fire alarm control panel would provide the sensitivity level of each smoke detector. In reality, though, I knew the fire alarm control panel could not provide such information; what it could provide was a value that represented the percentage that the smoke detector was outside of a pre-established sensitivity range. That’s why I also wanted to make sure the sensitivity levels of the detectors fell in the correct range, within UL listing criteria; we used the manufacturer’s published test criteria and equipment so that our testing provided the base level sensitivity setting of each smoke detector.
Testing found some of the smoke detectors to be outside of their required sensitivity range, and had to be adjusted. In a few instances, the detectors could not be brought within their UL listed range and had to be replaced. The actual adjustment or replacement took just minutes for each device, but paid off significantly in providing a very high confidence level for the entire system.
The use of a specific, calibrated smoke particulate generator (as required by the UL listing) became a source of contention, since some of the engineers and installers wanted to use canned smoke. The UL listing only allowed for a particulate generator, and I continued to argue for its use. In the end, we bought three smoke particulate generators to use for the testing, and they are kept operational for additional testing.
Gaseous fire suppression Select areas of the CVC that exhibit or store historic artifacts are protected from fire by gaseous fire suppression agents and automatic sprinkler systems. Gaseous agents such as FM-200 or NOVEC 1230 are piped into storage rooms, exhibit spaces, and display cases to provide initial fire suppression capability while preserving important and often irreplaceable items, including the first draft of Senate Joint Resolution 119, adopted by the House and the Senate on December 11, 1941, declaring war against Germany, and the original gavel used by George Washington when he laid the cornerstone for the U.S. Capitol.
Since gaseous fire suppression relies on specific minimum agent concentrations to comply with NFPA 2001, Clean Agent Fire Extinguishing Systems, the integrity of the room, enclosure, or cabinet is vital to the successful suppression and extinguishment of any fire that may occur. To be certain that the protected space can hold the required concentration as long as necessary to achieve extinguishment, the eight spaces protected with the CVC’s gaseous system were subjected to an enclosure integrity test using fan-pressure apparatus—and all eight were found to have leaks. Some spaces were relatively small, meaning that even small leakage rates were deemed failures since agent concentrations would quickly fall below necessary levels. All leak points were identified and sealed. Further testing continued to reveal intolerable leak rates, however, which required alternative approaches to seal the spaces. Additional non-combustible fillers were applied, such as caulking and proprietary fire-retardant foam-in-place material. The testing and sealing process took about two months to complete.
One positive result of this extra sealant material was that it decreased the volume of the protected space, which meant the amount of gaseous agent in the dual storage cylinders ended up being about twice the amount necessary to protect the spaces. This additional quantity allowed us to sequentially release all of the agent over a timed period, thereby providing both agent concentration and an extended “soak time” necessary for extinguishment.
Smoke control system With the entire CVC situated underground, the building’s engineered smoke control system received the same kind of close scrutiny that the other life-safety systems received to ensure they complied with NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®. Using calibrated magnehelics—essentially, a digital pressure differential meter—to measure pressure differentials between adjacent smoke zones, it was learned that some fan motors were not of sufficient horsepower to accomplish minimum design requirements. During testing, we simply couldn’t get the pressure differences we needed between some of the spaces, which meant that, in the event of a fire, there could be smoke migration from one area of the building to another. Three fan motors were removed and replaced by larger, stronger motors, typically going from 35 horsepower to 65 or 70 horsepower. While this process caused some angst—the month-long project cost the contractor thousands of dollars, and it was a scramble to find new motors—other testing could continue so that the final occupancy schedule was not affected.
Throughout this final phase, I faced intense Congressional and organizational pressure to conclude the testing and issue the Certificate of Occupancy as quickly as possible. My reluctance to issue a Certificate of Occupancy became a lightning rod for a host of interested parties, from the construction team and the AOC staff to members of Congress and Congressional committees. As public criticism of the project grew sharper—Rep. Deborah Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida), who chaired a House hearing on the center’s progress, described the CVC as a “beautiful disaster”—I was summoned before members of Congress on a number of occasions to “discuss” the matter of testing and the Certificate of Occupancy; while most recognized the importance of our efforts, some remained convinced that I could shorten the test schedule or postpone some of the testing until after the CVC’s formal opening. On one occasion, I was told by a senior member of Congress that I was being “too picky” and that I should “stop being so intense.” During a meeting with the construction team, concerning my test plan for the building’s life safety systems, one of the attendees, a senior management official from my organization, left the meeting and called me on my cell phone. The person advised me that if I was unable to reach the “correct” decision, then they would find someone who could. To their credit, though, especially considering how much they wanted the project completed, no member of Congress or the Architect of the Capitol overstepped me to force the opening of the CVC before the testing was complete.
In the end, the testing took six months. But it uncovered, and ultimately repaired, a wealth of problems that would have otherwise compromised the CVC’s complex networks of fire- and life-safety systems. It also removed the final barrier to my issuing the final Certificate of Occupancy, which I signed on October 9, 2008, in a brief ceremony in the center’s Emancipation Hall. Two months later, the CVC officially opened its doors, and for the first time the public could experience this magnificent structure—one that I know is as safe as we could possibly make it.
Considered the most ambitious addition to the United States Capitol since the construction of the iconic cast-iron dome in 1863, the Capitol Visitor Center ranks with other significant Capitol construction and expansion milestones, including the addition of the Senate and House wings (in 1800 and 1811, respectively) and the full reconstruction of the Capitol after it was burned by the British in 1814.
The need for a visitor center was first identified in the mid- 1970s in the Capitol Complex master plan developed by George White, the ninth Architect of the Capitol, but the concept languished for some years. That changed on July 24, 1998, when a gunman stormed the Capitol’s House Document Door (now renamed the Monument Door), shooting and killing U.S. Capitol Police Officer Jacob (J.J.) Chestnut before making his way toward the offices of the Majority Whip, where he was confronted and wounded by another member of the U.S. Capitol Police force, Detective John Gibson, during an exchange of gunfire. Gibson was also wounded, and later died. The attack crystallized the need for a facility where visitors could be safely screened before being admitted into the Capitol. Within weeks of the shootings, Congress directed that the visitor center project move forward and that appropriate measures be taken to prevent similar catastrophic incidents. In deference to a request from John Paul Stevens, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and to preserve the Capitol’s East Front promenades, the CVC was designed as an underground structure. (Interestingly, an earlier remodeling of the Capitol grounds by Frederick Law Olmsted required the in-place abandonment of a 121,000-gallon fire-protection cistern used during the 19th century; the cistern was removed as part of the CVC construction.) A design for the building was finalized in 2000.
Then came 9/11 and, the following month, the anthrax attacks on the Capitol, which combined to have a profound impact on the CVC project. September 11 made us realize that we had to build the CVC so it could be completely evacuated, along with every other building in the Capitol Complex, in the event of a malicious attack. In a fire, people can usually be moved to another part of a building, or to another part of the complex; in an attack, people have to be able to get out of every structure and out of the complex itself, and that’s an entirely different matter. The anthrax attacks changed the dynamics of how we provided for heating and cooling, as well as the movement of people in an emergency. Together, those events changed the CVC’s construction materials, methods, and systems—everything. Those changes probably added two years to the CVC’s construction, not to mention hundreds of millions of extra dollars to the cost.
I had plenty of time to think about that one night during the anthrax attack, when for roughly eight hours I was the only person in the Capitol building. The last time the Capitol had been vacated was during the War of 1812, and the experience of being the only person in the building, especially considering the circumstances, is one I’ll never forget. Wearing a protective level B hazmat suit, I moved from office to office collecting classified documents from the Select Committees on Intelligence and placing them in burn bags for secure disposal. This task fell to me because I was trained and certified in hazardous materials operations, had a complete knowledge of the Capitol’s layout, and possessed a top-secret security clearance—the three necessary qualifications deemed critical for the operation. After that night, I spent the next year on a regimen of powerful antibiotics as a precaution against possible anthrax exposure.
It was one more instance during that strange, unsettling period that hardened my resolve to make the CVC as safe as possible—we had to get it right.
- Kenneth Lauziere