Fire safety problems still need to be addressed in former PNC Bank building

November 11, 2012|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU |

Less than a year after Washington County’s government bought a downtown Hagerstown building for $3 million, a 2009 study by a Frederick, Md., firm found that the county would need to spend $1 million more to fix the building’s fire and life safety problems, The Herald-Mail has learned.

The study listed an additional $2.8 million in recommended, but not required, corrective actions.

The county could move office workers into the building, which it bought in 2008, without making any changes, but that wouldn’t be wise, BMK Architects Inc. of Frederick told the county in the lengthy report obtained recently by the newspaper.

“It is clearly apparent, as described throughout this study, that there are many existing conditions within the building that do not comply with current regulating codes, nor do they promote the safety, health and general welfare of current and future occupants and it is our professional opinion that specific improvements need to be made to the building prior to any increased occupancy,” BMK said in the report.

County Public Works Director Joe Kroboth said he intends to push for the county to do more in meeting modern fire and life safety codes in the building, even though a Maryland code for older buildings would allow the county to move in without improving anything.

“The (Maryland) rehabilitation code allows existing buildings to be used as is, so that’s what sets the condition ‘move-in ready,’” Kroboth said.

“My perspective is, what’s it going to take to get the building to current codes, which is not required? In my opinion, it’s the right thing to do for the safety of the occupants,” which include the building’s current tenants, he said.

On the other hand, Kroboth said, “there’s new fire and life safety technology that comes out every day and most buildings don’t have all the newest, state-of-the-art technology that is available on the market. I could take you to 99 percent of the buildings downtown and probably none of them would have all the newest and latest fire and life safety technology. But should they be vacated immediately? No.”

“Hence the reason, I’m advocating we do this level of improvements before we move a larger number of people in,” Kroboth said.

According to BMK, the “required corrective actions” range from enclosing three stairways or areas near them with fire-rated walls to give occupants protected routes of escape, installing several fire-rated doors, reconfiguring hallways to eliminate dead ends and removing more asbestos.

BMK also listed nearly $2.8 million in “recommended corrective actions ... to improve maintenance requirements, energy efficiency and to meet good engineering practice.”

If the county were to install a full sprinkler system as is “strongly recommended,” then the other requirements might change, dropping the overall cost, BMK said.

“Both lists are based on the study’s findings as well as discussions with local codes officials,” BMK said. Those officials will determine what actually is required after the county decides what renovations it’s going to make, BMK said.

It isn’t clear whether the Washington County Commissioners knew about such problems when they voted 3-2 in March 2008 to buy the 120-128 W. Washington St. building, much of which had been used by banks for decades. The building is sometimes even now referred to as the former PNC Bank building, in recognition of the last in a string of banks to occupy it.

On the day of the vote, County Administrator Gregory B. Murray was quoted as saying that some county departments could move into the building within six months.

The building, which is next door to the county administration building, remains largely empty more than four years later. As in 2008, the county still has three tenants — a law firm on part of the first floor, and another law firm and an accounting firm on the third floor.

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