News Arizona Election Audit


Is the Veterans Memorial Coliseum Unsafe? Records show year-long fire code violations

Posted at 3:17 PM, May 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-16 15:45:52-04

The Arizona Veteran's Memorial Coliseum has seen a lot since it was erected in 1965.

It was home to events like the madness of the Phoenix Suns home games in the 1990s, and political rallies.

Former Presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush, along with other candidates have welcomed supporters at the Coliseum, during their campaigns for president.

It even helped house displaced Americans after Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans in 2005.

Some of the building's features have aged over the years, though. Some, that need to be maintained under state law.

ABC15 discovered some of the building's fire safety features are outdated, not up to code, or in some places need complete replacing.

Still, last week, graduates from the Phoenix Union High School District got their diplomas on the floor of the building, Their families gathered in surrounding risers to watch and celebrate their achievements.

"It’s very concerning to me that to hear that there were families and students who were walking through there probably without understanding that the building was not up to code at the time," said Kathren Coleman, a former Deputy Recorder for Maricopa County, whose concern extends to the outside review of all 2020 votes cast in Maricopa County happening inside the building.

Senate Republicans initiating the effort that also includes a hand recount of votes, after some shared unproven claims of fraud during the general election after Joe Biden was declared the winner of Arizona's vote.

The recount happening on the floor is estimated to take another month to complete, all while the effectiveness of the building's fire safety features hang in the balance.

“We are talking about both human lives and human rights here," said Coleman, who served under Recorder Adrian Fontes. "If there is a situation that could result in the evacuation of Veterans Memorial Coliseum, there is no way to get those ballots out in time. There may be a way to get some of the staff out, but we want to make sure that they are safe when they walk in the door not just have a safe evacuating plan."

An inspection report obtained by ABC15 shows the last complete inspection of the building happened in March 2020. The Arizona Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM) noted 32 code violations inside the Coliseum. To date, 25 violations have been addressed and repaired. Still, OSFM notes seven of the original 32 violations remain, more than a year after first flagging them. Some, important safety systems that would be used in case of an emergency: the Coliseum's fire alarm system and sprinkler systems.

While records do not show the building has been deemed unsafe for use, OSFM's report notes sprinkler systems above the north and south risers surrounding the Coliseum floor aren't up to code. The specific reason isn't stated.

The building's fire alarm system needs replacing, according to the Arizona Exposition and State Fair. The process started in 2020 with phase one of three but has not been completed.

"As a result of COVID the agency stopped revenue-generating operations." said a spokesperson for the fairgrounds. "Additionally, the agency did not receive a budget appropriation for fiscal year 2021," to complete repairs needed.

Still, Senate Republicans chose the Coliseum to host the ballot recount efforts in April, despite evidence they are aware of the issues.

SB 1820, a budget bill dropped Monday, shows a plan to allocate $1,000,000 towards replacing the fire alarm system inside the state-funded Coliseum.

“It is fully their responsibility and completely on the backs of Senate leadership to make sure that they provide a space that protected voters rights and protected Arizona and Arizonans ballots," adds Coleman. "If there is some kind of catastrophic failure or fire in Veterans Memorial Coliseum, whether it’s fire or water, it is certainly going to impact those ballots and the ability to retain those ballots.”

According to Arizona state law, ballots must be retained for at least 24 months immediately after an election.

It's why the Maricopa County Elections Department built what they call "The Vault" in 2020. The room adds extra layers of security measures including dry-suppression technology that would protect ballots in the event of a fire, without using water from sprinkler systems that could also damage votes.

Another problem flagged in the 2020 report received an additional warning by the Office of the State Fire Marshal last week.

The "hood systems" in kitchen areas, used to help ventilate smoke while using grills to cook, are also in violation of state fire code in some areas of the Coliseum. Photos attached to OSFM's latest report shows a compliance tag with an expiration date of 2013.

"Fryers and appliances protected by hood system shall not be used until hood system is serviced and compliant," according to the latest report.

Hired security at the Coliseum working for contractors conducting the ballot review tell ABC15 the kitchens have been used during the effort to cook meals for staff and volunteers on site.

“This is our democracy and it is very personal to each and everyone of us,” said Coleman. “If a catastrophe happens at Veterans Memorial Coliseum and there is some sort of fire or loss of ballots then I think immediately we see the Department of Justice step in.”

ABC15 has reached out to a Senate spokesperson to find out if Senate President Fann, or others involved in planning and selecting the Coliseum for the recount were aware of the code violations.

ABC15 has not been able to schedule an interview with the Office of the State Fire Marshal for an interview regarding the issues and whether the violations pose a significant hazard to those inside.

However, Cassie Peters, assistant director with OSFM released the following statement to ABC15:

"Fire control system issues at Arizona Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum have been documented over time by the Office of the State Fire Marshal. Therefore, the OSFM has developed a working group with both members of the State Fair and Exposition Board and Deputy Fire Marshals to in fact deal with the outdated infrastructure at the Coliseum. It is the job of the OSFM to conduct inspections before every event held to ensure the safety of the public and the staff. Issues with the fire alarms and the sprinkler systems are a result of outdated equipment and difficulties with finding parts to fix those systems. Currently the alarm system is functioning, however it needs to be upgraded to be compliant with adopted code. In the meantime, and until systems can be brought up to code, the OSFM requires a fire watch be in effect during events as a precautionary measure and back up procedure. The OSFM and the Exposition and State Fair Board are working to determine proper and safe solutions to maintain the Coliseum’s current system until funding can be obtained to install a new system. The current proposed State budget includes $1 million dollars in capital funding to update the systems. The State Fair and Exposition Board continues to work toward correcting the issues and is working closely with the OSFM to ensure the safety of the public and allow for continuation of events at the Coliseum."

The Arizona Exposition and State Fair have not been told to stop renting the building despite the potential safety risks.