Maui Community Correctional Center (MCCC)’s fire control system has been a mess for at least the past two years, documents obtained by MauiTime show, and it won’t be fully modernized for at least another year. In fact, correspondence between the state Department of Public Safety (DPS) and Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (DLIR) shows that state officials have known the system has been breaking down and in desperate need of modernization since at least October 2015. Though a DPS spokesperson insisted that the prison’s fire control system is fully functional today, the need to replace obsolete parts and modernize the system will take some time.
“The upgrading of the fire alarm panel and smoke detectors is being addressed through DAGS [Department of Accounting and General Services] Job No. 15-27-5577–Fire Suppression and Alarm System Project,” DPS spokesperson Toni Schwartz said in a Sept. 27 email. “This allows us to maintain the current fire alarm system while the new system is being installed.”
MCCC has been in the news a lot in recent months because it’s egregiously overcrowded (click here for our July 5, 2017 story on the matter). Not so well-publicized has been the prison’s internal fire control systems–which would impact the safety of not only the prison’s correctional officers, but its inmates as well.
Correspondence between the DLIR and DPS dating back to October 2015 refers to a number of problems with the prison’s system for fighting fires–much of which is still being corrected. Though The Maui News first reported that MCCC had problems with their fire system in their Feb. 1, 2017 story “Maui lockup is jampacked,” the paper reported that the prison heard of DLIR concerns in January of this year–in fact, DLIR correspondence with DPS officials on MCCC’s fire control system dates back to Oct. 5, 2015.
“On October 2, 2015, we notified you by telephone of the alleged hazard,” Tim Shing Chao, a manager at DLIR’s Occupational Health Branch, wrote to DPS Director Nolan Espinda on Oct. 5, 2015. The “alleged hazard” Chao mentioned in his letter was that MCCC “did not maintain a fire alarm panel in operable condition.”
What DPS officials did following Chao’s letter isn’t known, though it apparently wasn’t good. A year later, on Oct. 16, 2016, United Public Workers Local 646–which represents Hawaii correctional officers–filed an official grievance with the state.
“This grievance is being filed as a class action grievance on behalf of all BU10 employees at Maui Community Correctional Center (MCCC), Department of Public Safety (PSD), State of Hawaii,” states the grievance form from UPW Department Director Julie Miyagawa. The grievance states that DPS “failed to provide a safe work environment by not repairing and/or replacing faulty fire panels at MCCC.”
Miyagawa then listed a host of problems with MCCC’s fire alarm system that went far beyond Chao’s initial letter written a year before.
“The Union and James Hirano, Warden, have been notified that 54 smoke detectors are off line, 3 fire alarm pull stations do not function properly, 2 fire alarm control panels do not function properly, and 1 alarm cannot be reset,” she wrote. “The failure to correct this situation is jeopardizing health and safety of all employees.”
Though harsh in its language, UPW eventually dropped its grievance–apparently when DPS finally started to correct the fire alarm issue. “UPW conducted a site inspection regarding the matter and was satisfied with our responses,” DPS spokesperson Schwartz told me. “The grievance has since been withdrawn.”
That being said, correcting the fire alarm system at MCCC has taken a long time, and still isn’t done–which hasn’t been lost on the DLIR. Nearly three months after UPW filed its grievance, DLIR Occupational Safety Branch Manager Allen M. Miho wrote a new letter on the matter (dated Jan. 12, 2017), this time to MCCC Warden Hirano and Deborah Taylor, MCCC’s Chief of Security. This is the letter apparently referenced in The Maui News’ Feb. 1 story, and it made no mention of Chao’s earlier Oct. 5, 2015 letter. But this time, Miho listed many more alleged safety hazards at MCCC than Chao’s letter, all related to the prison’s fire control system. They included the following:
- A huge array of smoke detectors that were “offline;”
- “Armory smoke detector was covered with tape”
- Recreation yard emergency exit doors are inoperable;”
- Missing exit signs;
- “Blocked emergency exit;”
- “Walkways and steps have wood rot and protruding nails and loose boards.”
In February, The Maui News reported that “several issues already have been remedied but others will require capital improvement funding.” The paper said that “upgrades of the fire safety panel were in the works.” As far as problems with exit doors were concerned, “public safety officials said that there are other fire exits for inmates and staff and that door replacement and upgrades are scheduled to start late this year.”
While reassuring, further correspondence between the DLIR and DPS throughout the spring of this year indicates that many issues still remain. In fact, on May 23, 2017–three full months after The Maui News published its story–DLIR’s Miho wrote MCCC Warden Hirano a blistering four-page letter stating that the DLIR had received yet another “notice of safety and health hazards” concerning the MCCC fire control system. Miho also stated that, in regards to his Jan. 17, 2017 letter, “the bulk [of the alleged hazards] still remains to be fixed.”
Miho’s May 23 letter states that there were problems with the DPS response to some issues, including various smoke detectors being offline, inoperable exit doors and unsafe stairways. Miho also said in his May 23 letter that the DPS hadn’t yet addressed numerous “other safety issues,” including additional offline smoke detectors as well as inoperable exit doors and pull stations. The letter also mentioned Chao’s Oct. 5, 2015 letter, stating that the fire panel he mentioned nearly two years prior “still have [sic] not been fixed.”
Miho also including a warning, in boldface type, that he needed a response from Hirano by May 30, 2017.
“If we do not receive a response from you by Tuesday, May 30, 2017, with the results of your investigation including any appropriate action taken, or that no hazards exist and an explanation of this conclusion, a HIOSH inspection will be conducted,” Miho wrote. “An inspection may include a review of the following: injury and illness records, hazard communication, personal protective equipment, emergency action or response, blood borne pathogens, confined space entry, lockout, and related safety and health issues.”
As it happened, Hirano did reply, though his letter to Miho was dated June 2, 2017–three days after Miho’s deadline. In it, Hirano states that the Massachusetts-based firm SimplexGrinnel (which has an office on Oahu) “has been called to come in and inspect all smoke detectors in the Module housing building all of which will be replaced if found defective.” He said that “all battery operated smoke detectors have been checked and are currently operational,” and prison staff will check them once a month.
Hirano’s response also states that DAGS project #15-27-5667 “will replace the current Central Control Fire Alarm system.” The upgrade is necessary “due to the unavailability of obsolete replacement parts.” Hirano added that “during the interim period before the project takes place, MCCC will will maintain the operation of the current Central Control Fire Alarm system.” As far as the emergency exit stairs were concerned, Hirano confirmed that dry rot did exist on the exit stairs, but that the “structural integrity” was intact. In any case, he said replacement of the stairs would start in mid-June.
To reiterate, in her Sept. 27 email, Schwartz stressed that MCCC’s fire alarm system is operational, but she added that work to fix the myriad safety issues highlighted above continues. She added that earlier this year the state Legislature appropriated $1.2 million for DAGS Job NO. 15-27-5577: Fire Suppression and Alarm System Project.
“While the DAGS project is ongoing upgrades have been installed to the current system and Simplex Grinnel is currently doing systemic analysis of the system,” she said in her email. “Items are being replaced and or repaired upon discovery by Simplex.” As far as the emergency exit doors concerned, she said that project is also ongoing.
“The project includes security electronics and hardware repairs and improvements, reconfiguring the sally ports and enclosing the officer station at the gatehouse,” Schwatz wrote. “There are currently alternative emergency exit doors that are fully functional at the present and are utilized by the module housing.”
According to DAGS officials, it will be some time before either the fire control panel replacement or emergency exit door projects will be completed. For the fire control panel system, the design should be completed by early 2018, and the construction by late 2018. As for the exit doors, which fall under a separate DAGS project (Job No. 15-27-5660), that should be done sooner.
“Notice To Proceed was March 31, 2017,” said Raechele Joyo, the secretary to state Comptroller Roderick K. Becker, in a Sept. 29 email. “Contract completion is March 30, 2018. Construction has not yet started because we are in the process of screening the security electronic and detention equipment contractors.”