Education

UI Children's Hospital let public in for open house despite safety lapses

Records show project scrambled for approval before opening to thousands

People tour the “press box” on the 12th floor during a Nov. 5, 2016, open house at the new University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital in Iowa City. Thousands of people were invited to tour the unfinished facility though an engineer just days earlier found hundreds of fire safety shortcomings. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
People tour the “press box” on the 12th floor during a Nov. 5, 2016, open house at the new University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital in Iowa City. Thousands of people were invited to tour the unfinished facility though an engineer just days earlier found hundreds of fire safety shortcomings. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — The week before an open house would welcome thousands of visitors over four days into an unfinished University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, project executives were frantic they wouldn’t get approval from the state fire marshal in time.

“My honest opinion at this moment in time is that we will be allowed to hold opening events because we are in Iowa,” a project manager with Rhode Island-based Gilbane Building Company wrote Oct. 24, 2016, to her vice president, according to internal emails obtained by The Gazette.

“We will be lucky to have paint on the walls, carpet tile, and 2x2 ceiling on 12th floor,” she added, referring to the floor that features an acclaimed “press box” for young patients to overlook neighboring Kinnick Stadium.

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The university did hold that Nov. 3-6, 2016, open house — even though there is no documented evidence of approval from the State Fire Marshal Division, and even though an engineer report noted hundreds of shortcomings in fire protection and life-safety code requirements, an investigation by The Gazette found.

The open house let more than 10,000 guests roam six floors of the 14-story building, including the 12th, now famous for the “wave” that invites those inside Kinnick for Hawkeye football games to wave up at the young patients watching from above.

Despite the open house, the planned Dec. 10, 2016, opening of the new Children’s Hospital fell through. The facility didn’t start treating patients until February 2017 when the State Fire Marshal Division signed off on its final inspection.

UI officials have said they strive to comply with all regulatory requirements and believe they did so with the open house, noting the fire marshal has said it does “not have any concerns about the event.”

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“The safety and well-being of our patients, visitors and staff is a top priority for everyone with University of Iowa Health Care,” UI spokesman Tom Moore said.

Some lawmakers and industry experts, however, say the open house illustrates how the Board of Regents and its public universities do not have to follow some laws and regulations they should.

“They believe they get to do what they want,” said state Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, who represents a district that includes the regents’ University of Northern Iowa and who works as a firefighter.

“There should be no use whatsoever, whether for a grand opening or any member of public using the building — they should not be using the building without the building official authorizing the occupancy,” said Jay Elbetter, president of the International Code Council that developed a model building code for states to adopt.

Internal documents show the project manager’ did attempt to obtain a “temporary certificate of occupancy” in advance of the public open house, even telling contractors it had received one after spending more than $1 million to rush portions of the project deemed necessary to satisfy requirements.

But the fire marshal told The Gazette it issued no such thing before the November public tours.

“There are occasions when people can be allowed to come inside the building during construction,” State Fire Marshal Dan Wood wrote in an email. “This entry onto the premises is discretionary with the owner. Inspectors do not make that decision. It is up to the owner.”

Wood, in his email, said his office can issue two kinds of occupancy permissions following successful inspections: a temporary one, allowing access for a limited purpose and time, and a final one allowing the building to be used as intended.

The State Fire Marshal Division provided documents showing its inspector approved on Jan. 25, 2017, the temporary “occupancy and use” of six lower floors in the new hospital for staff training. On Feb. 23 — two days before the hospital welcomed patients — the inspector recommended “use and occupancy” of all floors.

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Kyle Gorsh, special agent in charge with the division who serves as its spokesman, said the fire marshal wasn’t required to issue occupancy certificates to the state project.

“For a construction project like the Children’s Hospital, the state statute does not require the use of an ‘occupancy’ certificate to be issued during the construction process or at the end of the process,” Gorsh wrote in an email.

He said, though, the division conducted several inspections before the public tours.

Emails obtained by The Gazette — which the State Fire Marshal Division did not provide, despite a public records request — show those working on the hospital project clearly thought the occupancy certificates were required.

On Oct. 31, 2016 — a day before open house volunteers were due for training — a contractor that spent more than $1 million on temporary fixtures and labor costs in advance of the opening events sent a confused email to the UI about a change in previous instructions to rush installment of automatic doors at an additional $239,116.

“We have been under the impression that the gift shop and servery doors are a requirement for either smoke rating as required by the fire marshal, or security, and have spent a lot of money to expedite the arrival and installation,” the contractor wrote.

An executive for Gilbane, the project manager, explained that the Children’s Hospital “is being inspected today by the state fire marshal for TCO (temporary certificate of occupancy) based on the current conditions of the project.”

The automated doors could not be only partially installed for the inspection or opening events, according to Gilbane. That afternoon, Gilbane told the contractor, “The temporary certificate of occupancy has been granted for the opening events without the installation.”

Such a document could not be found. However, an email sent by Gilbane to the fire marshal included a “conditional occupancy request” and indicated the state had given its verbal approval for use during opening events.

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The letter requesting “conditional occupancy,” signed by UI Health Care project director Jason Miller, promised “guided and scheduled tours” of all open floors except the lobby “to ensure that members of the public are restricted to spaces that have been prepared in anticipation of these events, and to ensure that designed occupancy loads are not exceeded.”

Staffers and volunteers were present on open floors during the events, but the public did not have to schedule tours or follow guides in examining the spaces.

A field report from an engineer for the project conducted before the open house — between Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, 2016 — checked for life safety and fire code compliance and found hundreds of shortcomings, according to documents obtained by The Gazette.

The report, which wasn’t issued until after the open house on Nov. 23, found missing exit signs, penetrations in smoke barriers and absent sprinklers and smoke detectors, among other life-safety issues.

On Level 12, according to one note, “There are no fire alarm notification devices on this floor.”

One month later, emails show project executives were still scrambling for state permission to temporarily occupy the building.

“It’s like being in front of an invisible firing squad on the front lines, and each day is getting more chaotic,” Gilbane project manager Jennifer Halstead wrote. “Having said all this, we are still making progress on the project and our team is getting closer to honing in on what we think should be a doable date for TCO.”

Another month later, on Jan. 25, 2017, a state fire marshal inspector recommended “temporary occupancy” of a limited number of floors for staff training. On Feb. 17, the inspector reported the facility was in substantial compliance with life safety and international fire code but the “general public is not allowed” on several floors — including 12 — “until permanent occupancy is granted.”

That came Feb. 23.

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The State Fire Marshal Division on its website and in inspection reports notes construction must comply with numerous codes, including the International Building Code and the Life Safety Code for health care facilities.

The International Building Code says “no building or structure shall be used or occupied … until the building official has issued a certificate of occupancy.”

Gorsh, with the fire marshal division, said Iowa Administrative Code deletes that section of the International Building Code for construction projects within the state’s jurisdiction.

Iowa is not unique in its own adaptation of the International Building Code, according to Elbetter, president of the code council. But, in keeping with the code’s intent, a building shouldn’t be used or occupied “unless a building official has authorized it to be used,” he said.

UI spokesman Moore said, “The opportunity to hold this event wouldn’t have been available later in the construction process because of the necessity for the staff to begin their training, perform final cleaning, stock medical supplies, and the patient occupation of the spaces.”

Sen. Danielson said he doesn’t fault the fire marshal for its role in reviewing the Children’s Hospital because state law has nixed any legal requirement for an occupancy certificate.

“You are dealing with agencies that have near 100 percent discretion, and you have discovered what happens when there is a conflict and the Board of Regents has a bias toward completion,” he said.

The State Fire Marshal Division, he believes, tried to signal the project needed more time by giving a “non-answer” for the open house.

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“Then, because of the discretion of the code, the lead agency — the Board of Regents — has to decide from a legal perspective we will just proceed,” Danielson said. “And it sounds like that’s what they did.”

Danielson said he’d like to see more teeth in Iowa law for state agencies like the regents.

“State law needs to be changed to say state agencies actually need to follow state policies,” he said. “It’s a crying shame I even have to state that publicly.”

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