Institute relations with Troy turn sour over codes

Troy Fire Chief Tom Garrett wrote a letter in mid-January to New York State requesting it to shut down RPI’s Voorhees Computing Center due to “unsafe” access roads and alleged fire code violations.

Garrett wrote that the Institute did not construct a road to the VCC that could handle a fire truck, detailing that the 10-foot-wide access road with 5 feet of grass pavers—metal grids which allow grass to grow through them—was not strong enough and violated the NYS requirement of a 20-foot-wide road.

Vice President for Administration Claude Rounds stated, however, that the construction associated with improving access for emergency vehicles was voluntary and costs an additional $500,000 to the Institute. The Institute had formerly consisted of old pathways and walkways, which were narrower and had no structural sub base, and has been updated to concrete walkways with a structural base.

Acknowledging that the roads weren’t the required 20-foot-clear access path, Rounds noted that in order to accommodate this, the Institute instead “enhanced the width of the paths using grass pavers which are more than adequate to carry the weight of a fire truck and the out-riggers from a ladder truck” due to Leadership, Energy, and Environmental Design standards. According to Rounds, the efforts on the new quad adjacent to the VCC were formulated with the principals of sustainable design in mind, while also working to improve “the mobility and accessibility as we do each phase of work.”

Garrett has voiced through several media outlets that he ordered firefighters not to enter the building in the event of a fire, though he noted TFD would fight the fire from the outside. He also noted that he wouldn’t risk a $1 million fire truck in the event of a fire.

Rounds stated, however, “Because the building has sprinklers, everything we did on top of that fact represents an extraordinary plan—a code-compliant plan that took extraordinary measures to provide fire access to the VCC.”

Rounds also noted that RPI did not have to provide fire access on both the north and the south side of the VCC, as it is a building equipped with sprinklers. “The code allows you, when the building is sprinkled, to have greater distance between access points and the building. But, since we were looking at developing a new pedestrian plan that would be pedestrian-friendly … we also decided to upgrade that portion of that design.”

He concluded, “We didn’t have to make it fire accessible, we weren’t required to do it, and in fact, because the building was sprinkled, our decision to invest this money is even more extraordinary.”

No word has been received from the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control on the matter. Rounds remarked, “Rensselaer has no knowledge of the letter sent by [Garrett] to the state. “[The state agencies] have never identified any problems with the access and have offered no specific commentary regarding concern that they may have regarding the situation. We haven’t received a report from them. We don’t know if we’re going to get a report from them. We reached out to them to try to clarify that.”

Following the reports in the media during mid-January, Rounds stated that RPI officials worked with an independent consultant from Architecture Plus, who was previously used by the city of Troy. He wrote a report, paying extra attention to the grass paver system, and concluded that the work was never required and the that area was in compliance before and after the work.

  “We certainly would look forward to a statement from [City Engineer Russ Reeves] regarding the VCC access,” Rounds said. “We think that it would bring great closure.”

Neither Garrett nor Reeves were available for comment.

The fire department and RPI have had previous disputes over the safety of firefighters responding to calls at the campus, most notably during this past summer. A fire in a third-floor laboratory of the Jonsson-Rowland Science Center in June left the fire department displeased when it was unaware of what potential hazards it faced from chemicals in the lab. TFD has also pressed for a public safety fee to be levied on students for emergency services provided to the Rensselaer campus by Troy, although the fire department has not requested this of any other schools located in the area.

Rounds stated that the next phase of work would be adjacent to the ’86 Field. The design is currently being worked on, and this will include thoughts from students within the School of Architecture. The area will remain a green space and Rounds remarked, “Our design will be code compliant. What we do will continue to provide adequate access.”