Architecture and Design

Phoenix Fires Two Employees, Confirms That Burton Barr Central Library Flooding Was Preventable

Burton Barr Central Library, with fencing around its perimeter, on July 22, 2017.
Burton Barr Central Library, with fencing around its perimeter, on July 22, 2017. Lynn Trimble
The city of Phoenix fired two employees after concluding a personnel investigation related to flooding that occurred at Burton Barr Central Library on July 15.

And additional disciplinary actions have been taken, according to City Manager Ed Zuercher.

High winds caused roof damage, according to reports by the engineering firm brought in to analyze the structural damage. That damage set off a fire sprinkler system, which was built into the library's roof. There was flooding on all five floors of the building.

Burton Barr Library, a flagship of the 17-branch Phoenix Public Library system, has been closed ever since. Designed by Phoenix architect Will Bruder, Burton Barr Central Library opened in 1995. Typically, 1 million people visit that location each year.

The library is expected to remain closed until at least June 2018. Repairs could cost up to $10 million, according to a memo Zuercher submitted to Mayor Greg Stanton and the Phoenix City Council on Friday, October 27.

So far, insurance has covered $8 million of flooding-related costs, according to city officials.

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Part of the stacks on the fifth floor, where fire sprinklers caused flooding on June 15.
Lynn Trimble
Zuercher's memo also confirms that the library flooding was preventable.

It notes that a small number of city employees in the public works, library, and fire departments knew there were maintenance issues with the library's fire suppression system. But they failed to take appropriate action.

Specifically, they were told the system's pipes had holes that could cause major water damage.
Had the faulty fire suppression system been replaced in 2014, it would have cost $750,000. And the whole flooding incident likely would have been avoided.

Hence, Zuercher notified a total of six city employees of disciplinary measures on Monday, October 23.

Two were allowed to retire, including a management services administrator in the library department and a security systems supervisor in the public works department.

Of the four additional employees, two were terminated, one was demoted, and one received a 40-hour suspension.

Terminated employees include a project manager in the library department, as well as an electronic systems specialist in the public works department. A building facilities superintendent in public works was demoted, and a deputy public works director received a 40-hour suspension. 

The investigation also revealed problems with organizational structure and process failures. Those are being addressed as well, Zuercher says.

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Entering the library on Friday, August 18.
Lynn Trimble
In the meantime, library repairs are ongoing.

Initial efforts included mitigating water damage. For several months, repairs have been underway on the first through fourth floors. Those fixes are expected to cost $2.5 million, according to city officials.

On Wednesday, November 1, the city council will consider whether to spend an additional $2.3 million for a new roof and fire suppression system, as well as fifth-floor repairs to elements such as drywall and flooring.

But that's not the only library-related issue they're scheduled to consider at that meeting, which is open to the public.

The council will also review a proposed temporary library location: inside a building at the Park Central Mall site just north of Burton Barr Central Library. That space is just over 29,000 square feet, and would cost approximately $675,000 to lease for nine months starting around December 15.

Other decisions will follow, as the city digs further into why problems with the library's sprinkler system went uncorrected.

An additional investigation is still underway in the fire department, Zuercher says. Once that's completed, city staff in that department could face formal disciplinary action.

The city is also conducting a broader, citywide review of maintenance needs on city buildings used by the public, paying particular attention to fire and life safety systems.
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble