Guest Commentaries

County Sheriff: Elevators in aging jail pose safety risks

Replacement facility is 'best option'
February 21, 2022 at 5:05 a.m.
The Whatcom County Jail, attached to the rear of the County Courthouse and administration building, is the source of ongoing controversy: Repair, or replace?
The Whatcom County Jail, attached to the rear of the County Courthouse and administration building, is the source of ongoing controversy: Repair, or replace? (Ron Judd/Cascadia Daily News)

Whatcom County Sheriff

On Feb. 11, Cascadia Daily News ran an article entitled “County Jail elevators operational, Facilities Management says.” Conflicting information from County officials created a perception that the Sheriff’s Office was incorrect in its assessment and was purposefully trying to inflate the seriousness of the issue. It is necessary to provide some much-needed clarification. I cannot allow statements that may mislead the community to go unanswered. 

For decades, repeated failures of critical systems and infrastructure within the jail have resulted in severe life-safety and security issues that impact the effective administration of justice, and create unreasonable risks for those detained in the facility, staff and visitors. 

While the Sheriff is responsible for the operation of the jail, the Whatcom County Administration, through its Facilities Department, is responsible for maintenance, repairs and recommending associated expenditures. When issues arise that interfere with the safe and secure operations of the facility, the Sheriff’s Office notifies the Facilities Department as it did with the latest failures with the elevator system last November. Due to repeated earlier failures, as well as a 2016 engineering study overseen by the Facilities Department that rated the elevator system as “poor” and recommended it be replaced, this should not have been a surprise to anyone. 

However, no funds were allocated for elevator replacement, and the Facilities Department reported it is relying on an elevator technician with “older, vintage training” to step in and keep the elevators operational each time the system fails. Often the technician’s success is short-lived, and the elevator can go out of service the very next day, as was the case earlier this year. Over the decades, deferring needed repairs and maintenance has led to serious operational and life-safety issues. When life-safety issues are present, it is imprudent to rely on a sole repair person for his “vintage” experience and unreliable results.

Unlike a department store, unreliable elevators in a vertically-designed jail pose substantial risks. When failures occur, responses to emergencies are delayed and deputies can become trapped with violent offenders. Moving offenders on fire escape stairs is not a good option as they may become violent, attempt to escape, and in cases of health-compromised offenders, may lead to a serious medical episode. If offenders or staff require advanced EMS life support, elevator failures will cause delays when seconds matter.

Unfortunately, the County has neither found a way to fund a new criminal justice facility nor fully funded critically needed investments in the current failing building. The Facilities Department reported that it is hard-pressed to recommend investments in a building that should be replaced.

I have had conversations with County Executive Satpal Sidhu about this, and we both agree that the safety of workers, visitors and inmates must be the top priority. I understand that he has directed staff to pursue a reliable long-term fix to the elevators and/or replacement options, for consideration. We expect the Facilities Department to soon come forward with a plan that will fully address these concerns as soon as possible.

While a Stakeholder’s Advisory Committee has been charged with establishing a jail “needs assessment,” since the 1990s, multiple County-created commissions, task forces, consultants, engineering firms and the United States Department of Justice have all identified critical failures in the jail and recommended it be replaced. These recommendations have not come to fruition. Executive Sidhu believes a replacement facility is the best option for our community. In the interim, we need to ensure the safety of the community with an elevator system that is safe and reliable.

Sheriff Bill Elfo is serving his fifth term as Whatcom County's top law enforcement official.
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