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'U' Mechanic Warns Of Fire Safety Hazards In Campus Building

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- A mechanic at the University of Minnesota is blowing the whistle after what he discovered in one building on campus.

Bruce Ballentine says he found during a recent inspection of the Education Sciences Building that exit signs and emergency lights have little or no battery power remaining.

What's worse, Ballentine says a door would trap people trying to escape a fire.

But when WCCO asked the college about it, despite national standards, officials seemed to downplay any risk.

Ballentine, a building mechanic at the U for 33 years, took WCCO behind the scenes to better understand the assignment that has stunned this seasoned vet.

"Nobody's life should be in danger coming to the University of Minnesota," Ballentine said. "I would tell anybody, a loved one that comes to work here, goes to school here, teaches here, know where your exits are."

If you don't, Ballentine says don't expect the exit signs to lead you to one in the event of a lasting power outage.

The red flashing lights on the side of the signs means they're in need of batteries.

"I think I found problems with 17 to 18 of them, so roughly half of the exit signs," Ballentine said.

In the end, 21 of 35 of the exit signs inside the Education Sciences Building on East River Road had problems.

Education Sciences Building University of Minnesota
The Education Sciences Building (credit: CBS)

Inside are four floors that students and staff walk through every day. Faculty offices line some hallways, and there is also a busy Dunn Brothers coffee shop inside.

"There's a lot of good people at the University here that don't know this is going on," Ballentine said.

He holds the proof in his hand: a part of the exit sign that shows what the different lights mean. In red letters, it spells out that red flashing means battery failure.

Ballentine found more problems with emergency lights in the buildings. Kill the power, and only two lines of lights remain on.

"All of them should be on. Every one of those should be on," Ballentine said.

He recorded battery outages in 50 of these lights throughout the building -- about a quarter of all emergency lights.

But it's a fire door that has him most frustrated.

"If the smoke alarm goes off, the door is going to close," he said.

The exit sign above it should signal you should be able to get out this way -- but this door won't open.

"It locks. It will not open without a key," Ballentine said. "The automatic doors would automatically close once the fire alarm goes off. This door will close, then when people try to get out of it it's locked."

Ballentine has not inspected this building himself since 2013. He blames less-experienced mechanics for not catching the issues sooner.

"You shouldn't have this many things wrong in one building," he said.

When WCCO first brought Ballentine's findings to the U, a university spokesperson said a supervisor told them everything here is fine, and the building is in working order. But no one would go on camera.

A spokesperson then said that fire door is now unlocked, calling that original setup a mistake.

Here is a statement from a University of Minnesota spokesperson:

Life safety is a priority for the University of Minnesota. Facilities Management works closely with the University's fire inspector to ensure we are meeting all applicable code requirements, and the exit lights in the Education Sciences building are inspected biannually to insure they are working properly.

These lights are hardwired into the building's electrical system and use a battery as a backup source of power, so they will remain lit in the event of a power outage.

The issues in question with the exit light batteries were brought to the attention of Facilities Management through their regular inspection schedule on Monday, and will be addressed and resolved within 10 business days.

The light indicates that the batteries should be changed soon, but they still provide backup power in the hardwired connection is lost.

But Ballentine says because the batteries are failing, and there's no way to tell how long they will last.

Even standards from the National Fire Protection Association say it's not possible to set a hard-and-fast rule.

In all, Ballentine is in charge of 20 buildings on the East Bank -- and he calls this the worst inspection he has seen.

He is sending a message now to everyone he knows, no matter where they go.

"Look to see where the closest exit is because you don't know," Ballentine said.

He has submitted his work order for new batteries, and they should be changed in 10 business days.

The 120 mechanics within the U system have been working without a contract for three months.

Their union scheduled a strike authorization vote for next week.

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