ASU union lacked sufficient sprinklers - East Valley Tribune: News

ASU union lacked sufficient sprinklers

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Posted: Wednesday, November 7, 2007 8:42 pm | Updated: 7:16 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

There are no sprinklers over the ASU Memorial Union storage closet where a fire started last week and spread across the campus’ busiest building.

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No part of the union’s second or third floors has sprinklers despite the fact that state fire code requires a building be “sprinklered” whenever it has major renovations.

The 52-year-old Memorial Union has been undergoing renovations for the past couple years, but university officials say a lack of cash has kept them from installing sprinklers in the upper floors of the building.

Arizona State University only installed the fire suppression devices in the basement and rooms that have been renovated on the first floor within the past two years, said Jim Gibbs, ASU’s fire marshal.

ASU delayed installing sprinklers across the 254,000 square-foot building, which several thousand students and university employees visited every weekday, because there wasn’t money to do the whole project at once, Gibbs said.

Instead, the sprinklers were to be installed in phases during the next two to three years, he said.

But ASU cannot wait any longer.

Phil Mele, Arizona’s fire marshal, has ordered the university to keep the union closed until it has installed sprinklers, a project that could take months.

On Friday, Mele, Gibbs and other ASU officials will inspect the union, which has been closed since the fire broke out last Thursday. The group will determine what other life safety improvements the union needs before it can reopen, including fire alarms and other devices.

In 2001, the legislature cut all funding to maintain buildings at Arizona’s three public universities, according to an analysis by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. That situation has continued for most of the last decade. Lawmakers put some money in the maintenance budget last fiscal year but eliminated it again this year.

The building renewal fund is supposed to pay for critical maintenance projects, including “projects to comply with building, health, fire or safety codes,” the state statute says.

The budget committee’s analysis shows lawmakers have shorted the universities $376 million in just the past seven years.

The university will put out a request for bids to install sprinklers next week, Gibbs said. The project could cost millions of dollars to complete.

More than 5,000 people were evacuated from the union, which burned much of the building’s eastern end.

Mele said he considers the union fire “suspicious,” though the cause remains unknown.

“It’s a crime scene,” he said.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is conducting the investigation to determine what caused the fire. Mele said he asked the federal agency to investigate because his office doesn’t have the resources to do so.

When finished, Mele said ATF would provide its findings to the ASU police department, which will head a criminal investigation, if necessary.

Gibbs inspected the union earlier this year and said humans are likely responsible for the fire, not an electrical or mechanical problem.

“There’s nothing that can be found in the building that would have caused this type of situation without intervention,” he said.

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