Courthouse passes fire safety tests

New $350M facility can now open, possibly next week

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Many people have been waiting a long time to do business inside Duval County's new courthouse, but many have been anxiously waiting even longer to do business outside the building.

Jennifer Cuffy has sold hot dogs near the new courthouse location for nine years. She said she has been awaiting the increase in business.She said she is relieved to know the hundreds, if not thousands of people a week who will cross her stand will start showing up on Monday.

"I was very skeptical about what was going on," Cuffy said. "It was a week, then another week. Hope it opens as scheduled."

Now, the new scheduled opening comes after the new courthouse has passed a fire safety system test, following 11 attempts over the course of several weeks.

"Turner (Construction) and their people have been really meticulous, going step-by-step over the process," Fire Chief Marty Senterfitt said. "Their hard work has paid off."

Officials said courthouse workers will now gradually complete their move in and setup inside over the course of the next week, and courthouse operations likely won't begin until the week after.

Three floors of the old courthouse have been getting ready to reopen temporarily starting Monday, but there was more optimism than ever earlier Friday that the city would soon be able use its new $350 million building that was scheduled to open May 29.

Limited operations will be held at the courthouse annex and the old courthouse at least through Wednesday, officials said.

This, the latest round of tests of the new courthouse's fire safety system, began at 4 a.m. Friday. Initial indications were positive, with all building access points, the elevators, stairwells and forth through seventh floor all passing. All of the tests were said to have passed by late Friday afternoon.

"It really is a state of the art building," Senterfitt said. "It's going to be something we're going to be proud of."

David Reaves, of Turner Construction Co., talked about the company's stance, despite people being angry with the delays.

"I think they would want to know that safety is No. 1 with Turner," Reaves said. "Turner is about safety, and we want to make sure this is a very safe building and you are going to have the safest building in Jacksonville when we are done here. Sprinkler systems work, the fire alarm system works, and you will have a very sophisticated smoke evacuation system."

As for the cost, Reaves said, "Well, I am sure we are going to have discussions about that, but we are not there. We are focused on getting it done and getting them moved in."

Ten previous fire safety tests found problems with the highly technical fire control system that involves sprinklers, fans and other devices to draw smoke out of the building. Officials said there is no other system like it in place in Jacksonville. It's the latest technology, and that's why there are so many bugs to work out.

The results were critical for the city to make a final decision on whether the city moves out of the new building completely and sets up shop at the old courthouse or makes plans to open the new courthouse next week.

"I think the city's really trying," Chief Judge Donald Moran said as he arrived Friday morning. "I think for a while they were kind of stalled, but I think they're really making a good effort and I'm real pleased. They put Karen Bowling in charge and she's doing an excellent job."

A week ago, the fire system was failing on the third floor and in the atrium. Then the test began failing in other areas like stairwells and elevators shafts.

In the case of a fire, elevator shafts and stairwells act like a chimney and fill up with smoke. There would be no way out, and that is why those areas have to pass the safety test before the building can be occupied by the public in any fashion.

The building could now open completely next week. It has been given a temporary certificate of occupancy because minor things such as plugs and light switches need to be checked.

Clerk of Courts Jim Fuller and his 300 employees will remain operating at temporary sites for now while they gradually move into the new building and set up and get acclimated with it.

"For Monday and next week, no matter what happens at the new courthouse, we are going to receive all filings at the annex," Fuller said. "The jurors are going to come in Monday. They will come into the annex like they've always come in."

With a large criminal backlog of cases, judges said they have a plan to work with the State Attorney and public defender's office to get it up to speed within weeks.

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