Burton Barr Central Library, with fencing around its perimeter, on July 22, 2017.EXPAND
Burton Barr Central Library, with fencing around its perimeter, on July 22, 2017.
Lynn Trimble

Burton Barr Central Library Flooding Investigation Is Complete

The city of Phoenix has disciplined five people after concluding an investigation into the fire department related to flooding that occurred at Burton Barr Central Library on July 15, according to city manager Ed Zuercher.

These disciplinary actions mark the close of a six-month investigation into who was responsible for the flooding, and they bring the tally of people reprimanded to a total of 11. The flooding was preventable, according to an October 27 memo Zuercher sent to Mayor Greg Stanton and the Phoenix City Council.

"Now we can focus on ongoing repairs and getting the library ready to reopen," Zuercher says.

High winds damaged the roof of the library, located on Central Avenue south of McDowell Road, on the night of July 15, 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, and 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 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 reopen in June 2018. Repairs could cost up to $10 million.

"We already have an $8 million payment from the insurance company," Zuercher says. The rest will come from the library's reserves unless the city gets additional money from the insurance company.

Four city employees were disciplined on October 23 for their role in the incident, and two were allowed to retire rather than face disciplinary measures.

The city launched an investigation into the role of fire prevention personnel last year, and it took several months to complete. Fire prevention is one of several divisions within the city's fire department, which is headed by fire chief Kara Kalkbrenner.

City attorney Brad Holm conveyed the results of that investigation to Zuercher in a memorandum on Wednesday, January 3.

On Wednesday, January 3, Zuercher notified five employees that disciplinary measures were being taken related to the July 15 flooding. Following due process procedures, those measures went into effect on Thursday, January 25.

One employee, a records clerk, was terminated. The fire marshal was demoted. An assistant fire chief and a fire captain were suspended for 80 hours, and a deputy chief was suspended for 40 hours.

The records clerk was terminated because she decided not to include city buildings when following up on reports of fire system problems. So reports about maintenance and life-safety issues at Burton Barr Central Library didn't reach the right people, and needed fixes never got made.

Zuercher sent an email with Burton Barr Central Library updates to Mayor Greg Stanton and the Phoenix City Council on Monday, January 29.

Part of the stacks on the fifth floor, soon after fire sprinklers caused flooding on June 15.EXPAND
Part of the stacks on the fifth floor, soon after fire sprinklers caused flooding on June 15.
Lynn Trimble

The update indicates that restoration work on floors one through four should be completed by the end of March.
"Restoration work on the fifth floor, including the roof and fire suppression system, is scheduled to be completed by the end of May," the update reads, in part.

In the interim, Phoenix Public Library expanded Sunday hours at four nearby branches. On Friday, January 5, it opened a temporary 30,000-square-foot satellite branch inside a former department store space on the lower level of Park Central Mall. The satellite provides access to books and other materials, computers, and several library programs.

Efforts to prevent a similar incident happening at Burton Barr Central Library or another city facility are ongoing, Zuercher says. The city launched a review of all city buildings shortly after last year's flooding, in order to assure that maintenance issues were being properly addressed.

That review is looking at 676 buildings, and should be completed this spring. "We found lots of buildings with systems that are out of date, but no life safety issues," he says. 

For library patrons, the news isn't all bad.

"When the library reopens, it will be better than before," Zuercher says. "We took the opportunity to expand the College Depot and Children's Place, which is something people wanted, but was hard to do with the library open."

Even so, he recognizes that patrons have been significantly affected by the yearlong closure.

"I am very sorry for the people that depended on that building, and none of this makes up for the fact that we let people down."

Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version.

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