County examines expensive, dangerous fire escape

One of the fire escapes at the Wapello County Courthouse goes to the third-floor main courtroom. Tests revealed the staircase is not safe.

OTTUMWA — There are ways to leave the courthouse during a fire. Just don’t flee by the fire escape — it isn’t safe.

The metal stairs outside several Wapello County Courthouse windows may be starting to pull away from that outer wall. Testing should be done every five years, a fire escape salesman and inspector from Ohio said. That was news to the county supervisors.

“I asked the fire department, and they’d never heard of it either,” said the current Wapello County Board of Supervisor’s chairman, Jerry Parker. “But it is a law. And we also want our courthouse to be safe.”

The test went poorly. These stairs are required to support 800 pounds. The fire escapes failed.

“I wouldn’t trust them to support me,” said Parker.

One way to get out to the fire escape is through a door you may have seen (it looks like a window, Parker said) in the main courtroom. There’s an exit sign right in front of it. But besides not trusting the outside metal stairs, law enforcement told the county that providing an easy access escape route in the courtroom where felony trials take place might not be a good idea.

“Really, I think they were worried someone was going to come in that way and hide a gun,” he said.

So that door had already been locked. But a brief examination of the outside of the courthouse shows multiple entry points onto the flawed fire escape. Each has an exit sign by it. None should be used. Which prompts another question: Should those signs be removed, or is that illegal?

This doesn’t mean the board automatically needs to put in new fire escapes. Since the sprinklers have been repaired, supervisors discussed, perhaps the regular steps could be the emergency exit. They’ll need some guidance on rules and what will be safest: For example, fire code may require there to be two ways to escape a burning structure.

An engineer and an architect patrolled the courthouse recently.

“They did a final walk around,” said Parker. “They’ve talked to the state fire marshal’s office and will talk to the fire department here. We should have an answer in about a week.”

Obviously, new fire escapes hadn’t figured into the budget. The estimate said a new fire escape will cost $250,000 for one. The courthouse currently needs two. What it needs to be safe during an emergency could be discussed as soon as the next supervisors’ meeting.

Source: Ottumwa Courier, contact reporter Mark Newman at or visit his Twitter page, @CourierMark.