The State of Ohio and the Columbus Fire Code

Recent Major Fires:
       Dec. 1, 1958, Chicago: fire at Our Lady of the Angels grade school, resulted in deaths of 90 students and 3 nuns.
       May 28, 1977, Southgate, Kentucky: fire in Beverly Hills Supper Club; 167 dead.
       October 6, 2002, Columbus, Ohio: Gasoline tank fire at The Ohio Statehouse, from refueling vehicle in underground parking garage.
       Feb. 20, 2003, Warwick, Rhode Island: fire caused by a pyrotechnics display engulfed a Rhode Island nightclub, The Station, killing 100.

      What do these four fires have in common? They all resulted from gross fire code violations, were predictable, and should not have happened. There is one major difference though, the Ohio Fire Code violations and the hazards continue at the Ohio Statehouse and history may repeat itself.
        In August 2001 I retired from the Columbus (Ohio) Division of Fire after 29 years of service. Of the over 1500 firefighters in the Columbus Fire Department, I was the most senior of the five assistant chiefs, the rank just below the chief of the division, and the highest rank achievable through competitive testing.
        From February, 1994 to July, 1999 I was in charge of the Fire Prevention Bureau, a position that involved me in a number of controversies. The most significant was over the illegal installation of a 480 gallon gasoline tank and the dangerous and illegal dispensing of gasoline in the Ohio Statehouse underground parking garage in downtown Columbus.
        The mayor, Gregory Lashutka, and his Safety Director, Thomas W. Rice, and other city officials were directly involved and one or more of these officials were responsible for allowing this code violation to continue.
        It was my perception that Lashutka and Rice wanted me to drop that issue. Because the safety of possibly thousands of citizens in downtown Columbus was involved, I demanded compliance with the fire code.

Cars exit from the upper level of the three level Ohio Statehouse underground parking garage. The gas tank is located about 100 feet inside the vehicle exits by the statehouse loading dock. The garage also has a vehicle passageway that goes under Broad Street and into the basement of the Rhodes State Office Tower, a 600' high rise building.

        The saga began sometime in 1997 when the State of Ohio illegally installed a 500 gallon gasoline tank in the Ohio Statehouse underground parking garage, on the east side near the loading dock. Because the Statehouse is state property, they had attempted to bypass the city and get a permit from the State Fire Marshal’s office but were not successful.
        After appealing to the State of Ohio Board of Building Appeals, they were told, among other things, to apply to the Fire Department having jurisdiction.
        After the tank was already installed, they did apply for a permit with the Columbus Fire Division, and unknown to me, one of my inspectors did issue the permit. Three days after the fact I found out about it and immediately ordered the permit revoked.

        [A little lesson is appropriate here. How many places do you know of where gasoline is dispensed inside of a building? In the unlikely event you know of even one, it’s not in the basement of the building. And there is a reason for this.
        There is a tremendous amount of energy in a gallon of gasoline. After all, just a gallon can move a 3,000 pound automobile thirty miles or more and that’s less than half of the energy - most of the energy is lost through the exhaust pipe and radiator as heat and does no useful work. A gallon of gasoline is said to have the power of 40 sticks of dynamite.
        Gasoline itself will readily vaporize anytime the temperature is above about -50 degrees. Worse yet, the vapors are about four times as heavy as air. That means that in the event of a spill the vapors will move by gravity to the lowest portion of a building. When they find an ignition source they will flash back with a quick release of this tremendous amount of energy (an explosion).
        Most firefighters who have been around for awhile have seen the unknowing person who decided to work on their lawn mower, or motorcycle, in the basement of their house, only to have gasoline vapors migrate to the hot water tank and flash back. Or the Gardner who throws gasoline on a brush pile and, standing downwind, ignites it - and himself - the vapors having traveled downwind and/or downhill before the ignition. With even with small quantities of gasoline the resulting fire can be devastating.]

        The people at the Statehouse went to the Safety Director (Thomas W. Rice, who is now in charge of security at the Port Columbus International Airport) and the dangerous condition continued. But we persisted. History tells us that, in the admittedly unlikely event that the catastrophe happens, the fire department will be the scapegoat.
        As the code defined, "Columbus City Fire Marshal," I consulted with an assistant city attorney and, after considerable research, she was ready to file for an injunction but was thwarted by the politicians.
        The mayor called a meeting in his office in order to resolve the issue. He, the safety director, the state’s engineer, the CSRAB (Capital Square Review and Advisory Board) executive director, an assistant city attorney, an attorney from the state attorney general’s office, and myself (among others) attended. The Mayor pointed out how bad it would look if the city brought an action against the state. I was tempted to ask him how it would look if the state blew-up a good portion of the city. Instead, I appealed to the logic of the situation and explained the sinister characteristics of gasoline and why dispensing gasoline in a below grade location just isn’t done.
        Even though it was highly questionable whether the actual installation of the tank was safe and legal, the meeting was concluded with an agreement that the pump dispensing equipment would be modified and all dispensing would be done above ground. Further, the tank would be filled during hours when the building was not occupied. When the new equipment was installed, we would issue the needed operating permit. Everyone was in agreement and within the next week, letters were exchanged testifying to the agreement.
        The state submitted plans for the aboveground dispensing equipment which we approved. The equipment was installed and we issued the permit. A major hazard in downtown Columbus was abated - or was it.
        Concerned by what I considered poor ethics of some of the people involved, a week after the permit was issued, I stopped by to verify that all was well. Unbelievably the illegal underground dispensing equipment has been reinstalled. It was obvious to me that we had been duped and I immediately revoked their permit.
        My authority to revoke their permit without a hearing was questioned by an assistant city safety director (whose side was he on?) and a state official, but the assistant city attorney concurred that I was correct.
        The situation dragged on. The assistant city attorney could not get approval from the safety director or the mayor to enforce the code and the illegal and potentially dangerous operations continued.
        Time passed and the assistant city attorney assigned to the case seemed to want out of the quagmire. On October 12, 1999, lacking the support of the city administration, she announced to me that she would do nothing further. (Unbelievably, the following day, October 13th, the City of Columbus filed a bogus lawsuit against me personally over an alleged zoning code violation at a commercial property I had owned for 35 years. This was a whole new can of worms which is detailed at:
        Negotiations later resumed with the state in an attempt to bring the dangerous gasoline dispensing into compliance with the fire code. But the state balked and, over the objections of the Fire Department, the city did nothing.
        In a January 11, 2000 letter to the assistant city attorney, the assistant state attorney general basically dictated what they would do to resolve the matter. Among other things he said, “. . . (with some exceptions) all CSRAB equipment will be refueled at the above ground dispensing station located on the Statehouse grounds.” He closed his letter by saying that this was a, “. . . full and final resolution.” To my knowledge the only city response was tacit approval.
         Small business people throughout the city are required to comply with the law and pay for inspections and permits for small quantities of flammable liquids while the State dispenses large quantities of gasoline while ignoring city and national fire codes.
        Just before I retired in August, 2001, I observed that the stainless steel flush-with-the-ground cover over the approved above ground dispensing equipment was grown over with vegetation, indicating that it had not been opened in months. Contrary to the assistant state attorney general's letter of January 11th that refueling was being done at the above ground location, not even the pretense was then being made.

John E. Rees,
Retired Assistant Chief,
Columbus Fire Department

Update - March 14, 2002
         I have received information that the Columbus Fire Department has now issued a permit for the State of Ohio to dispense gasoline in their statehouse underground parking garage. Apparently the issuance of the permit was based on an inspection done by Lt. Lawrence Stevens of the Columbus Fire Department. Lt. Stevens said in a memo to the city fire marshal that, among other things, ". . . they were not dispensing fuel below grade because there are two large openings. . . (the entrances to the underground garage at the base of the down ramps)."
         So much for the credibility of the inspection.
         The applicable code which addresses dispensing gasoline in the garage states that, "The dispensing location area shall be located at street level, with no dispenser located more that 50 feet from the vehicle exit to, or entrance from, the outside of the building."
        Currently there is no duly appointed Columbus Fire Chief, the previous chief having retired a week ago (any connection to the permit being issued at this time?).
        In a September 9, 1997 memo to then Columbus Safety Director Thomas W. Rice, fire chief Stephen K. Woltz said in part, "The Division of Fire is adamantly opposed to the installation of any Class 1 flammable liquid tank below grade as well as dispensing from same. To permit such an installation defies not only local and state fire codes but national standards and nationally recognized good practice. Because of the hazards introduced we would clearly be found derelict in our duty to protect the public should an accident occur."
         In a letter dated August 29, 1997, an assistant Columbus city attorney told an assistant Ohio state attorney that, "I mention these additional violations to highlight the degree of hazard presented by the AST (aboveground storage tank) presently located in the Statehouse Underground Parking Garage. This is not an issue of a failure to comply with some minor technicality. The AST issue presents substantial danger."
         In an e-mail from Thomas W. Rice, to the mayor on December 3, 1998, Rice, who appeared always careful not to put any critical statements in writing, and after being informed that underground dispensing of gasoline had resumed said, "I do have a continuing safety concern and a liability concern."
         A list of nine "conditions" was produced on Columbus Fire Department stationery, but unsigned, that apparently lists conditions under which gasoline may be dispensed. Basically is gives the statehouse permission to violate the fire code in exchange for a promise to do it less often.
        Michael B. Coleman, the mayor, and Mitchell J. Brown his safety director, most likely have now joined the city with the state in vulnerability to millions of dollars in claims should something happen, be it an accident or even some malicious act. The fact that they have been warned of the danger and that fire codes are being violated may well make Coleman and Brown personally liable for punitive damages, in addition to the city.
Question. Suppose the owners of the stately Palace Theater in downtown Columbus were to replace the emergency exit doors with bricks and mortar. Certainly they would be cited for the egregious fire code violation by the fire department. What if they then said that all safety precautions were being taken to safeguard the people who assemble there for the various performances. And then they would advance the argument that the theater had existed for 75 years and not one time had any of the exit doors ever been used for their intended purpose. The fire department would point out the obvious and then - what if the mayor became involved and suddenly the fire chief, that he appointed and who serves at his pleasure, decided that it was OK to remove the exit doors. Would you attend the theater with two thousand other people?

Update - Tuesday, October 8, 2002
        Shortly after 1:00 AM on Sunday, October 6, 2002, statehouse employees, in the underground parking garage, two floors below street level, were refueling a small motorized vehicle with gasoline from a 5 gallon can. The gasoline apparently contacted a hot surface resulting is a raging gasoline fire in the underground building. The entire incident was video taped on a security camera.
        Within minutes the Columbus Fire Department arrived to find heavy black smoke discharging from the air vent at State and High streets. The visibility was on the fire floor was virtually zero. Firefighters risked everything crawling through smoke and heat, not knowing the extent of the fire and whether or not additional people were endangered. Only by using their heat detecting camera were firefighters able to find and then extinguish the flames. An immediate thorough search for possible victims was impossible.
         The fire, that would have been a minor incident had it occurred outside, endangered the safety of firefighters and statehouse employees. Fortunately it did not occur during the busy part of the day when many people's lives would also have been in jeopardy. The loss was estimated by the fire department at a hundred thousand dollars ($100,000.00).
         This incident demonstrates, to those who do not comprehend the dangers, just why dispensing gasoline inside a building, especially an underground building, is prohibited. Unfortunately, there is every indication that the statehouse will continue to flaunt the fire code even though the wake-up call has been made.
Two days after the October 6th fire some idea of the extreme heat and smoke conditions that existed are visible. The gasoline fire, which involved only a few gallons, occurred two floors below the street on the "yellow" level. The vehicle in which the fire originated had been removed.

Your comments are invited. E-mail to John Rees: