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Electrical fires raise concerns in Alabama State House

A fire that forced evacuation of the Alabama State House last week has drawn new attention to problems with the building that serves as home for the Alabama Legislature.

An exhaust fan in a third-floor bathroom caught fire on Friday, causing heavy smoke and forcing the evacuation of the eight-story building.

One week earlier, Alabama Senate Secretary Pat Harris said an electrical outlet caught fire in his office on the seventh floor. It was put out with a fire extinguisher.

Harris said both fires could have grown worse had they happened on a weekend or evening when the building was not occupied.

Harris said he plans to meet Wednesday with the company that manages the fire alarm system in the State House. One concern, Harris said, is that the alarm did not go off on the seventh floor on Friday. Another concern is that a fire could trigger the building’s sprinkler system and damage computers and other equipment.

Othni Lathram, director of the Legislative Services Agency, said a report on the condition of the State House and its systems, including the electrical system, is due by September 30. The report on the building’s condition is not specifically related to the fires but was part of an annual maintenance agreement with the state Finance Department.

The State House was completed in 1963 to serve as headquarters for what was then known as the State Highway Department, which is now called the Alabama Department of Transportation.

The Legislature moved into the building in the 1980s for what was expected to a temporary stay to allow renovations of the Capitol. But the Legislature never went back to the Capitol.

About 250 people work in the State House year-round, Lathram said. That includes employees of the Senate, House of Representatives, Legislative Services Agency, Executive Budget Office, and Secretary of State. The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the number of people in the building on a regular basis.

Lathram said the building is a concrete structure that was retrofitted with air conditioning and has had problems with moisture.

Alabama House Clerk Jeff Woodard said he did not know about many recent problems with the electrical system in the House offices, which are on the fifth floor, although he said a couple of outlets have burned in the past.

Woodard said mold has been an issue in the State House for some time. He said that includes mold on multiple walls and mold discovered behind wall coverings during renovations.

The House this year adopted a resolution to set up a nine-person committee to study the environmental conditions and physical plant systems of State House and make recommendations to the Legislature.

The resolution said the State House has many problems, “including air quality, plumbing leaks, electrical power surges, flooding, inconsistent heating and air conditioning, accessibility, and lack of space for public access to committee meetings and other legislative business.”

The Senate did not pass the resolution.

The condition of the State House came up earlier this year when lawmakers were considering how to allocate the $1.8 billion the state received from the federal government from the CARES Act, which was to help with the costs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. Kay Ivey released a list of 16 suggestions from legislators that included $200 million for a new State House and blasted that idea as an inappropriate use of the money. Federal guidelines would not have allowed the money to be used that way, and the idea was dropped.

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