No broad inspections at Fenway, Garden

Reviews omit structural issues

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nikki Gloudeman
Globe Correspondent / June 30, 2008

In Massachusetts, the structural integrity of every fire escape must be checked periodically by local building inspectors.

Yet there is no mandate in the state building code to assess the structural soundness of major sports venues, no matter how old - such as 96-year-old Fenway Park.

What is required by the state building code, an annual safety inspection by the Boston Inspectional Services Department, amounts to little more than a superficial look at emergency preparedness at Fenway, according to city records examined by the Globe.

No one could accuse building inspectors of wasting paper, ink, or time.

Each year from 2002 to 2007, the safety inspection record on file at Inspectional Services is only a single page for Fenway and TD Banknorth Garden, with boxes to indicate compliance with 10 different standards, such as whether fire exits are accessible, fire extinguishers are at the ready, and emergency lighting and sprinkler systems work.

In three of those years - 2002, 2003, and 2004 - not a single box was checked yes or no for Fenway. The pattern also holds true for the Garden. Its one-page checklist was left blank in 2002, 2003, and 2006.

In the same six-year span, no safety violation of any kind - not even a burned-out exit light - was recorded for Fenway, the Garden, or a third facility, Harvard Stadium, which is nine years older than Fenway Park.

The records also show that Boston Fire Department conducts a cursory annual inspection that is nearly identical to the one done by Inspectional Services, though neither department seems aware of the duplication.

There is no evidence in the city's records to suggest that Fenway Park or the 13-year-old Garden has structural or safety shortcomings. In fact, according to Red Sox officials, the park's structural soundness is a top priority. Fenway is subjected to continual monitoring by engineers hired by the team who, among other things, look closely for signs of deterioration in structural beams and concrete.

Along with Inspectional Services, Susan Goodenow, a Red Sox spokeswoman, said the city's annual inspection is thorough, and she praised city inspectors for their "scrutiny and professional standards." As for the safety inspections, Harold McGonagle, director of buildings and structures for Inspectional Services, asserted that neither the single annual page nor the lack of violations suggests the inspections were not done well.

As for the blank reports, McGonagle said: "Inspectors should be checking everything off, but sometimes they don't. It's probably just someone in a hurry." In quite a hurry: Inspectional Services turned over to the Globe the time records of the inspector, Cheryl Odom, who is responsible for Fenway's annual preseason safety check.

In 2006 and 2007, Odom spent only about six hours each year doing the preseason inspection. Fenway, including the field itself, occupies 10 acres. What's more, McGonagle and Gary Moccia, the Inspectional Services assistant commissioner, acknowledged that once the safety inspection is complete, the department has no policy for checking back in midseason to make sure that, for example, fire exits are not blocked and emergency lighting still works.

Unless a complaint is lodged, a year passes before the next safety inspection. McGonagle said his inspectors, while overseeing renovation work at Fenway, do find violations, but they handle them informally and keep no records.

The state building code requires that inspectors make a record of all violations. McGonagle said attention to possible violations is "piecemeal."

If Odom spends little time on the inspection, it is not because she doesn't work hard. In fact, the city has so few building inspectors - 20 for the entire city - that there are sections of the state building code it doesn't have the resources to enforce, according to William E. Good, the Inspectional Services commissioner.

The Globe focused its attention on Fenway because of its age - it is the oldest major league baseball park - and because there have been structural failures in recent years at other parks. At Wrigley Field, for example, pieces of concrete fell three separate times in 2004. And at Yankee Stadium in 1998, a 500-pound concrete and steel beam fell onto empty seats.

Janet Marie Smith, the Red Sox senior vice president for planning and development, said team administrators also hire other structural engineers to do peer reviews. The team, however, is not required to make those reports available to the city and it declined to provide them to the Globe.

McGonagle believes that a mandatory periodic public structural inspection in Boston would be warranted. Matthias Mulvey, a building code consultant and former building commissioner for several Massachusetts communities, said he believes the state building code ought to be changed to require a structural review of sports arenas every five years.

How long should it take to do a thorough safety inspection of a major stadium?

At Gillette Stadium, Foxborough Building Commissioner William Casbarra said a building inspector and one or two firefighters spend one to two full days each year doing a joint safety inspection. And the state's top building official expressed concern, reluctantly, at the city of Boston's abbreviated inspection process.

Thomas G. Gatzunis, chairman of the state Board of Building Regulations and Standards, said through a spokesman, Terrel Harris, that he did not want to answer questions about the Fenway inspections because, Harris said, "it puts him in a position where it may appear he is critiquing the city, and he doesn't want to do that."

However, Harris said Gatzunis believes a proper Fenway Park safety inspection could take several days.

Each spring, according to Goodenow and Inspectional Services, one or two inspectors visit Fenway for a predawn check to ensure that the park's emergency systems will function if they have to be powered by a backup emergency generator. In a separate written statement, Goodenow said, "We feel a keen sense of responsibility to our fans and our neighbors, and have consistently sought additional means to ensure the safety and security of Fenway Park. As any prudent business would do, we have also retained unaffiliated organizations to conduct independent life safety and structural 'peer reviews' to gain additional perspective on Fenway Park."

In seeking to gauge how long a safety inspection should take, the Globe asked Goodenow for the number of fire extinguishers at Fenway. She said it would be "irresponsible" to disclose the number because, she said, someone might use it to "commit a crime or cause harm to others."

Despite the state building code's requirement, both McGonagle and Moccia said there is no need for city inspectors to keep records of problems they found as long as the team remedies them.

"We cite safety violations all the time. And typically, it's done verbally," Moccia said. "If it's a deficiency, we give them time to fix it. . . . If nothing is written up, then that means there have not been any violations."

The fact that Foxborough's Building Department devotes substantially more time to safety inspections, Moccia said, is irrelevant. "We are not podunk Foxborough, where they have to justify their time. We have other things we have to do," Moccia said.

Though it is Inspectional Service's responsibility under the state code to ensure Fenway Park's safety, Good said the Boston Fire Department also conducts safety inspections at Fenway.

Good, however, was uncertain how much firefighters do, and he said Inspectional Services does not have access to Fire Department inspection records.

Fire Department officials were able to turn up records of just two instances between 2004 and 2007 in which firefighters discovered safety violations at Fenway.

Steve MacDonald, a Fire Department spokesman, said it does its own annual predawn inspection of Fenway Park's emergency systems, though it is not required. This year, that inspection took place April 7, the day before the home opener, with its results confined to a single page, covering virtually all the same items as Inspectional Services.

Inspectional Services' records show that 10 days earlier, on March 28, McGonagle and Odom were at the ballpark from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. for the same purpose.

This article was reported and written for a Northeastern University graduate seminar in investigative reporting. Nikki Gloudeman's work was overseen and this article was edited by Northeastern University journalism professor Walter V. Robinson, former editor of the Globe Spotlight Team. Robinson's e-mail address is Confidential messages can be left at 617-929-3334.

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