SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Uh Oh. Something’s amiss at the State Capitol, and it’s got a bunch of government officials scrambling. Lawmakers are supposed to make laws, not break them. A KRQE News 13 investigation uncovered evidence of wrongdoing at the Roundhouse, where legislators are conducting business amid COVID-19 and threats of violence.
In order to pull off this year’s legislative session, lawmakers had to be creative and write a whole new set of rules. But even in the midst of a pandemic, there’s one rule that simply cannot be broken: The Fire Code.
Due to security concerns, the State Capitol building is mostly off-limits to the general public. The only way in or out is through a checkpoint in the Capitol Annex. All doors on the ground floor of the Roundhouse are locked, including those at the east and west entrances. That means unwanted visitors can’t get in. It also means those on the inside can’t get out. When lawmakers sealed the Capitol, they violated the Life Safety Code by unlawfully locking emergency exits.
The State Capitol Building is owned by the New Mexico Legislature. Even though the Governor has offices on the 4th floor, that space is leased from the Legislature.
On Monday, KRQE News 13 found all of the marked emergency exits locked from the inside during normal business hours. According to the Fire Code, any door marked with an illuminated exit sign is classified as an emergency exit and cannot be locked from the inside while the building is occupied during normal business hours.
Last week, the Capitol fire alarm was triggered by a small electrical fire. “There were a few people who went to the west side doors, tried to open them, and realized that they were locked,” Legislative Council Services Director Raúl Burciaga said. “That’s when I was advised that those doors were closed, and some staff were not aware of that,” Raúl Burciaga says.
“The fire code is what keeps people alive and keeps people safe,” says Deputy State Fire Marshall Ray Torres. Torres told KRQE News 13 there are “no exceptions” to allow marked exit doors to be locked from the inside during normal business hours.
Speaker of the House Brian Egolf (D-Santa Fe) says he first learned of the locked exit doors from KRQE News 13 on Monday. “(When I found out) I called folks at Building Services and asked them to get to the bottom of it and … correct the problem,” Speaker Egolf said.
“The (Capitol) doors … were locked as a part of closing the building off to the public and also for security based on the recommendations of State Police and Homeland Security,” Legislative Council Services Director Raúl Burciaga says. Did anyone at the State Police or Homeland Security suggest the Capitol’s exit doors should not be locked? “They did not. It didn’t come up in our discussions,” Burciaga said.
“We probably need to all educate ourselves on the actual fire code,” says Department of Public Safety Interim Cabinet Secretary Tim Johnson. “We discussed evacuation plans, should the building get breached, shelter in place plans, active shooter. I guess I failed to or neglected to factor in any fire-type evacuations. As the Cabinet Secretary of this organization, that responsibility lies with me ultimately, and I neglected to factor in any fire-related evacuations or fire code situations,” DPS Secretary Johnson said. He adds, the oversight was “not intentional.”
Following our investigation, Roundhouse Physical Plant staffers proceeded to unlock exit doors. Signage on improperly marked emergency exits was corrected.
“We have been talking with State Police and Homeland Security about how we keep those doors secure to some degree and make sure that they’re immediately open when there is an emergency,” Raúl Burciaga says.
Despite unlocking some doors, the State Capitol building is still not fully compliant with safety regulations. A State Fire Marshall inspection Wednesday found the Roundhouse is in violation of ADA requirements because handicap accessible sliding glass doors remain locked.
“We need to educate ourselves on the Fire Code to ensure we don’t do this in the future and maybe look at some other ways of securing the Capitol,” DPS Secretary Johnson said.
A Larry Barker Investigation