Park Service:

Agency Is Not Meeting Its Structural Fire Safety Responsibilities

RCED-00-154: Published: May 22, 2000. Publicly Released: May 26, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the National Park Service's (NPS) structural fire safety efforts, focusing on: (1) whether national parks are effectively addressing their structural fire safety responsibilities and if not, what are the main reasons; and (2) what improvements, if any, are under way to address identified problems.

GAO noted that: (1) structural fire safety efforts at national parks are not effective; (2) the structural fire activities at the six parks GAO visited lacked many of the basic elements needed for an effective fire safety effort; (3) these gaps included such fundamental things as inadequate fire training for employees, inadequate or nonexistent fire inspections, and--for many buildings--inadequate or nonexistent fire detection or suppression systems; (4) these situations led to many fire safety hazards; (5) GAO found fire extinguishers that had not been checked for years, overnight accommodations that had not been inspected by qualified fire safety people, cabins without smoke detectors, and visitor centers that did not have fire suppression systems; (6) NPS documents show that even when fire hazards are detected, they can go uncorrected for years; (7) as a result of these conditions, the safety of park visitors, employees, buildings, and artifacts are being jeopardized and are vulnerable to fire that could cause damage, destruction, severe injury, and even the loss of life; (8) these deficiencies occur primarily because local park managers are not required to meet minimum structural fire safety standards and because structural fire activities have been a low priority within NPS; (9) the Director of NPS issues general policy to local park managers about how to address structural fire safety; (10) however, park managers are not required to follow NPS' policy, nor are they required to meet a minimum set of fire safety standards; (11) instead, individual park managers are permitted to define the scope and emphasis given to the threat of structural fire at their respective parks; (12) GAO's work, as well as a recent analysis by NPS staff, show that structural fire safety is near the bottom of the parks' priority lists; (13) NPS acknowledges problems in implementing its structural fire safety activities and has begun a number of initiatives to address them; (14) these initiatives include: (a) developing new agency policies for addressing structural fire safety responsibilities; (b) placing specific minimum fire safety requirements on park managers; and (c) developing a process for structural fire building inspections and performing assessments of structural fire risks at each unit of the national park system; and (15) however, until these initiatives are completed and appropriate corrective actions are taken--which, at best, are years away--NPS may not meet its responsibilities for structural fire safety.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Effective January 19, 2001, the National Park Service issued Director's Order #58: Structural Fire Management. The Order established minimum structural fire safety requirements throughout the national park system. (See Accomplishment Report Number: GAO-01-237A). Furthermore, as of June 1, 2003, about 3200 buildings were assessed for fire safety risk. The Park Service has also drafted a process for ensuring that all new and major rehabilitation projects are reviewed for compliance with generally accepted fire codes by personnel qualified to do so. The Park Service has also implemented additional training for entry-level firefighters to ensure that testing and maintenance of sprinkler and alarm systems and structural fire building inspections are performed and that identified deficiencies are corrected. Lastly, it has provided training to managers so that they understand their responsibilities and liabilities in structural fire prevention and suppression. The actions taken therefore satisfy this recommendation and is considered closed.

    Recommendation: In order to enable NPS to meet its structural fire safety responsibilities, the Secretary of the Interior should require the Director of NPS to complete and implement in a timely manner the structural fire safety initiatives now under way in NPS. At a minimum, this should include: (a) establishing a minimum structural fire safety requirements throughout the park system; (b) providing for a fire safety risk assessment at each unit of the park system to systematically identify fire safety needs and deficiencies; (c) developing and implementing a plan for correcting the identified needs and deficiencies in a timely manner; (d) establishing a process for ensuring that all new construction and major rehabilitation projects are reviewed for compliance with generally accepted fire codes by personnel qualified to do so; and (e) providing the employees training needed to accomplish the four preceding tasks.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2010, the National Park Service issued an updated Director's Order #48, which sets forth operational policies and procedures necessary to establish and implement structural fire management programs throughout the Park Service. Relevant policies include requiring the development of fire suppression activities for structures as part of the park's emergency operations and fire management plan. Further, the Director's Order states that each superintendent is to complete a structural fire assessment and develop a structural fire plan to meet park needs and ensure that structural fire protection and suppression capabilities will be maintained in accordance with those plans. To complement the Director's Order, the Park Service released in 2015 the Structural Fire Management Reference Manual 58, which provides guidance on implementing a service-wide structural fire management policy for the agency. In particular, the reference manual establishes a framework through which Park Service implements principles, codes, standards, policies, guidance, and reporting requirements related to structural fire. The reference manual also delineates responsibilities for various levels of the agency, including park superintendents. Specifically, superintendents are responsible for assigning a Park Structural Fire Coordinator and ensuring that this coordinator develops, implements, and evaluates structural fire management activities within their parks. The reference manual also states that each superintendent will complete a structural fire assessment and develop a structural fire plan to meet park needs. Structural fire management plans are to be updated annually and following a significant structural fire incident, and comprehensive reviews are required for all plans at least every 5 years.

    Recommendation: To ensure that local park managers elevate priority given to addressing structural fire safety needs and deficiencies, the Secretary of the Interior should require the Director of NPS to hold park managers accountable for meeting NPS' health and safety responsibilities by requiring them to develop and implement effective structural fires safety programs. In doing this, it is important that specific deadlines are set for implementing these programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior


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