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Inconsistencies frustrate county

“The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing”, Commissioner Dan Holub said, referring to personnel in the state fire marshal’s office.

That was the consensus Aug. 18 when the county commission met in special session to discuss the jail dilemma.

And if the county doesn’t comply, a $1,000-per-day fine could be imposed and the county ordered to cease and desist operation of the jail.

The commission received notice from the fire marshal July 29 that it does not comply with state codes — interpreted by the fire marshal as a minimum of 120 square feet per inmate.

Fire marshal inspectors had been in the facility numerous times in the past five years and at no time was square footage noted as a problem during those visits.

In the last routine inspection, there were no other violations noted in the report other than square footage.

When the jail housed as many as 18 prisoners in July, inspectors cited the county for overcrowding and informed county officials of their interpretation of the code requirement.

County Attorney Susan Robson and sheriff Rob Craft had contacted architect Tony Rangel, who was the project coordinator for past jail renovations ordered by the fire marshal’s office.

“There are no jail cells (in Kansas) with 120 square feet,” Rangel said by telephone during the meeting. “I don’t think the inspectors are measuring correctly.”

Rangel is employed by Law Kingdon of Wichita, a firm that has designed numerous jails in Kansas.

The architect also expressed his frustration with the lack of cooperation from the fire marshal’s office. Both he and Robson said it was difficult to get a straight answer about what needs to be done to rectify the situation.

Thus far, the county has worked with five people from the fire marshal’s office and county officials noted there appears to be a lack of communication among them.

Although the commission agreed the county has done nothing wrong, Commission Chairman Randy Dallke wanted to know the county’s options.

“We have tried to correct whatever has been wrong and spent a lot of money to comply,” he said. “Can we file an injunction against the fire marshal?”

“We can file a lawsuit,” Robson said, adding she now has a name of an attorney with the fire marshal’s office.

Dallke suggested the county work on a plan that would not adversely affect taxpayers. Otherwise, Marion County may become another statistic with layoffs and cutbacks.

“I want them (fire marshal personnel) to come down and tell us what we need to do,” he said.

Rangel said he believed Brenda McNorton, prevention department head at the fire marshal’s office, was the decision-maker and interpreter of codes. Robson suggested asking McNorton to attend Monday’s commission meeting or at least be available by phone to address the county’s concerns.

Previously, inspectors quoted a fire marshal’s codebook, which has specific requirements for corrections facility. Now, they are quoting a building codes book.

“I have been told this is a tactic to shut down old jails and to build new ones,” Robson said.

Fire watch

Is one person walking through a three-story building looking for smoke and flames effective?

“We’ve got an adequate fire watch with cameras and smoke detectors,” Dallke said. “It’s better than a roving watch.”

Communications Director Michele Abbott agreed, saying two dispatchers watch cameras 24 hours per day.

However, the fire marshal is requiring the county to submit a weekly log, verifying the physical watch is occurring.

Holub said he was under the impression that the fire watch went beyond the jail building and could include the courthouse.

“If we shifted inmates, do we still have to have a fire watch?” Abbott asked, indicating another unanswered question.

Next steps

Abbott suggested the county compile a document with a bulleted list of concerns the fire marshal has noted over the past five years and how the county has addressed each concern.

The county also will include its interpretation of the code.

Rangel suggested including information from the county jail committee and how it continues to work toward a solution.

“They can’t dictate you to build a new facility but they can force you to comply,” he said.

Robson said she has filed the appropriate documents to comply with the 10-day response requirement and has filed an appeal within the 15-day time period.

The fire marshal also is recommending reports from the city fire inspector, fire chief Mike Regnier, and building code enforcer Marty Fredrickson.

Rangel will assist with the report, which was to be sent last week so McNorton could review it prior to Monday’s meeting.

“I believe the county is in compliance regarding occupancy,” Rangel said.

The amount of time McNorton will take in making a ruling was not known.

So, what’s next? The fire marshal’s office does not offer solutions, Rangel said.

“Could Rep. Bob Brookens help us?” Holub asked, adding getting legislators involved may speed the process to resolution.

Last modified Aug. 26, 2010

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