The rules are fairly clear for building owners in Massachusetts. If their structures have standpipes — a key fire-suppression system that channels water to upper and underground floors — they must inspect them every year, including checking for cracks, and pressure test them every five years.
But not the MBTA.
The agency that carries people on millions of trips each year says it only does standpipe inspections “on an ad hoc basis.” And stranger yet, the T is somehow exempt from fire regulations that apply to most everyone else.
In response to more than a half-dozen inquiries since last Thursday, a T spokesperson repeatedly declined to say when the MBTA last inspected the cracked standpipe that failed last week as firefighters responded to a train on fire at Charles/MGH Station. After this story was published stating that, spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said the MBTA does not have records of any inspections of the standpipe since it was pressure tested in 2019.
The equipment breakdown forced firefighters to improvise, hauling water up a flight of stairs to the smoking Red Line car.
MBTA general manager Phillip Eng said Tuesday that while the T “did not have any formal annual inspection” last year on the failed standpipe, a more rigorous approach is coming.
“The team is already working on a program to have annual, visual inspections, and we will build that into the process along with the five-year inspections,” Eng said. “But that’s just the one component of the stations. We’re going to do a whole top-to-bottom in terms of how we’ve been doing things in the past and how we need to do things moving forward.”
The smoking train and standpipe failure are the latest in a long series of safety incidents that have plagued the MBTA over the last two years, putting riders and workers in danger and drawing scrutiny from federal regulators.
The broken standpipe had a crack, said Boston Fire Department spokesperson Firefighter Brian Alkins, causing it to fail when firefighters at the station tried to use it. Alkins said he could not remember the last time the department encountered a broken standpipe; they are used in most office buildings and high-rise residential buildings as well as underground locations.
“We depend on them to use as a source of water,” he said. “We assume it’s going to work. When it doesn’t work we have to go to plan B.”
Plan B in this case included hauling cans of water up stairs. Red Line service was disrupted for several hours.
The National Fire Protection Association codes that Massachusetts has adopted say, “Components of standpipe and hose systems shall be visually inspected annually,” and “piping shall be inspected annually for the following conditions: damaged piping, damaged control valves, missing or damaged pipe support device, damaged supervisory signal initiating device.”
Maria Hardiman, spokesperson for the Department of Public Utilities, the MBTA’s state safety oversight office, said the DPU “does not have oversight over the inspection of standpipes.” The DPU verified that the standpipe at Charles/MGH last “passed certification” on Nov. 23, 2019, she said.
“The DPU is working with the MBTA to ensure a thorough investigation into the cause of the fire and flooding and to ensure that all mitigation efforts are undertaken,” Hardiman said in an email.
Spokespeople for the Office of Public Safety and Inspections did not respond to a request for comment.
Jake Wark, spokesperson for the Department of Fire Services, said state law, as well as an opinion by the state attorney general in 2000, mean the MBTA and its buildings are not subject to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Fire Safety Code. Buildings owned by other state agencies and authorities appear to also be exempt.
In response to questions about whether the City of Boston has the authority to compel the T to inspect its standpipes, the Fire Department said the T falls under state law for fire safety. The department said it is empowered to ensure the T complies with standpipe testing requirements, but didn’t specify what, if any, power it may have to ensure that standpipes are inspected.
Deterioration at T stations has become dangerously visible in recent months, with multiple incidents of debris falling from ceilings at stations along the Red Line, including one that hurt a rider.
Following the fire at Charles/MGH, Eng “directed staff to develop new protocols for a more regimented schedule of inspections of standpipe connections, valves, and other elements of the piping systems,” said Pesaturo in an email.
In May, Eng announced he was creating the position of chief of stations responsible for preventing falling debris and shoring up safety systems.
On Tuesday, Eng said he plans to announce his choice for that role “very shortly,” and that person will be responsible for an inspection program.
Correspondent Daniel Kool contributed to this report.