There was another false fire alarm at the statehouse Tuesday — the third in 10 days — and a legislator who is temporarily in a wheelchair is questioning why the governor hasn’t taken the safety of capitol workers and visitors more seriously. Representative Mark Kuhn, a Democrat from Charles City who was severely injured in a November farm accident, says Governor Tom Vilsack was quick to appoint a task force to investigate the controversy over the Iowa Lottery’s TouchPlay machines, but hasn’t acted quickly enough to ensure disabled people can safely exit the capitol in an emergency.
According to the Capitol Complex Security Plan, “the primary responsibility for the safety and welfare of the capitol complex employees and visitors rests with the governor of Iowa.” Kuhn says there’s no “chain of command” in place to properly and safely evacuate the capitol in an emergency.
Jennifer Mullin, a spokeswoman for Governor Vilsack, says the governor and lieutenant governor have taken steps to ensure the statehouse evacuation plan is “comprehensive.” “They take this issue very seriously,” Mullin says. “They do see it as, ultimately, their responsibility even though building managers…are ultimately responsible for evacuation plans.” Mullins says those managers are the experts and they’re reviewing the statehouse exit strategies, so there’s no need for a special “task force” to review problems. “We’re frankly glad that they were brought to light during a (false alarm) so that if and when a real emergency occurs people will be able to get out of the building in a safe and quick way,” Mullins says.
She says the governor and lieutenant governor have called upon the State Fire Marshal’s office, too. The Fire Marshal will inspect all the buildings on the statehouse grounds to ensure the buildings meet fire code and all evacuation equipment is safe and in working order. That walk-through, by the way, is supposed to happen today (Wednesday). Eight different state agencies are each supposed to have an evacuation plan for all or part of the statehouse and Representative Kuhn, the legislator who’s temporarily in a wheel chair, says he thought last week’s false alarms might be a better wake-up call. “The hope that these eight agencies…would start to take this issue seriously,” Kuhn says. “I’ve seen very little movement.” For example, the statehouse is supposed to have a person appointed as the overall coordinator of any evacuation, but no one has ever been appointed to the post.
“That’s just the top of the pyramid for this building. Each floor is supposed to have a designated coordinator with specific responsibilities,” Kuhn says. One of those tasks is to ensure people with disabilities are evacuated.
Kuhn says he still has no idea where he’s supposed to wait in his wheelchair — the so-called “safe place” — while others decide when or if to carry him out of the building. Kuhn, who is only temporarily disabled, says he’s concerned about the safety of people who are permanently disabled. “I want to make sure that the capitol is as safe when you attempt to leave the building in an emergency as it is when you arrive,” Kuhn says. “We have not implemented any of the measures in the plan to make sure that we have a safe exit for you.” Kuhn says there’s a “systematic failure” to execute the state capitol’s emergency evacuation plan. A legislative committee will discuss the statehouse evacuation plan today (Wednesday).