A fire May 16 in the state office building General Executive Facility 1 in Madison, known as GEF-1, caused $350,000 in damage. Madison Fire Marshal Ed Ruckriegel said this week that little damage would have occurred if the building had sprinklers.
Madison — Sprinklers could have contained a recent fire that by one estimate did $350,000 damage to a state office building, the Madison fire marshal said.
"With fire sprinklers, damage would have been limited to a few thousand dollars," Madison fire marshal Ed Ruckriegel said. "With fire sprinklers no one would have missed work."
Many state buildings in Madison and Milwaukee are not equipped with fire sprinklers, Ruckriegel said, because they were not mandated at the date of the buildings' construction and never have been required to do so since then.
"We need to consider what's better. Either we pay the money out front and have zero loss or have something like this happen and we all lose out," Ruckriegel said.
So far, officials for the state Department of Administration and the University of Wisconsin System haven't provided a breakdown of which of their buildings have sprinklers throughout and which ones don't, though the large student dorms at UW-Milwaukee do have them, a university official said.
It's routine for state and university employees as well as the general public to carry out their business in buildings that have been in use for decades and even generations, and not all of them have been upgraded to modern standards for fire prevention.
The fire in General Executive Facility 1, known among state workers as GEF-1, began in a cubicle on the fourth floor and quickly reached three-alarm status, drawing in resources from Fitchburg, McFarland, Monona and Waunakee, on May 16.
An initial investigation conducted by the Madison Fire Department estimated damage for the building and its contents at $350,000, but the total for repairs and other costs, such as the cleaning of the building's contents, could turn out to be more.
Cullen Werwie, a spokesman for the state Department of Administration, said a final estimate has yet to be determined. Werwie also said the state will conduct an additional investigation to assess the structural and mechanical status of the building.
Hundreds of employeeshave been asked to work from home or from an alternate location while investigations and cleanup continue. Initially the state asked an undisclosed number of workers to use vacation days or unpaid leave days if they could not work remotely.
More recently, a state official announced that employees unable to work remotely would be able to make up those days at another time. Werwie said the building will remain closed for upwards of eight weeks.
GEF-1 houses the offices of the Department of Workforce Development and the Department of Children and Families.
Stephanie Marquis, another state official, said the move has not caused any disruption to either department's services.
Ruckriegel said the lower levels of the building and the parking garage were equipped with fire sprinklers, but the upper levels — which house the offices where the fire occurred — were not equipped with sprinklers. He said the law did not require sprinklers for the building when it was erected in 1972.
Today, however, certain multifamily residential buildings and large commercial buildings must include sprinkler systems. Senior housing facilities, student housing high-rises, fraternity houses and sorority houses have recently been required by law to implement sprinkler systems in older buildings, he said.
A fire at the Sigma Sigma Sigmasorority house at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater yielded one injury and $150,000 in damage in March, according to campus newspaper Royal Purple News. Sorority and fraternity houses were required by state law to install fire sprinklers by Jan. 1, 2014, but the chapter had not complied.
T.J. Sargent, Greek life coordinator at UW-Madison, said all fraternity and sorority chapter houses in which students reside are now equipped with sprinkler systems. Each house is privately owned and payment for the installations differed for each house, he said.
Kurt Young Binter, a facilities architect at UW-Milwaukee, said he didn't have information on sororities and fraternities but was tracking down a list of campus buildings with sprinklers.
"Of course, every building is required to comply with the codes that are in force at the time of construction, and we do make upgrades as funding allows," he said.
All of the campus high-rise residence halls, for instance, have sprinklers, he said.
Art Dahlberg, commissioner of Milwaukee's Department of Neighborhood Services, said Milwaukee is no different than any other community in the state.
Under existing law, once a building is opened, its owners have to adhere to the building and fire codes at the time it opened. However, if the building is changed or adapted in any way, newer building codes are applied, Dahlberg said.
In Milwaukee, City Hall, finished in 1895, has a fire sprinkler system, as does the Zeidler Municipal Building.
In the GEF-1 inspection report, the Madison Fire Department cited no violations in its most recent inspection from April 15.
Werwie said the state monitors and inspects all buildings in which state employees work to secure their safety.
"One important component of this has always been ensuring state owned buildings are in compliance with fire and building codes," Werwie said in an email Monday. "Another important task is evaluating what upgrades need to be done and when."
Ruckriegel said the price for installing fire sprinklers ranges from about $2.50 to $3.50 per square foot, whereas carpet costs between $6 and $7 per square foot. In total, he said, installing sprinklers in GEF-1 would cost about $600,000.
"So we won't have a building without carpet but we will have one without sprinklers," Ruckriegel said. "There's just no logic in that."
Jason Stein in Madison and Don Walker in Milwaukee, both of the Journal Sentinel staff, contributed to this article.