Sprinkler accident floods Justice Center

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More than 20 Gale Force fans line the halls and courtrooms of the second floor of the Flathead County Justice Center in Kalispell Thursday morning. A mishap during a fire sprinkler system upgrade caused extensive flooding on three floors of the building Wednesday night.

A mishap during a fire sprinkler system upgrade caused extensive flooding on three floors of the Flathead County Justice Center Wednesday night.

The Justice Court on the second floor, where the flood damage was heaviest, was closed Thursday because fans drying out the courtroom and offices were too loud to conduct business, County Administrator Mike Pence said. Justice Court was expected to reopen today.

The third floor, which houses Flathead District Court, escaped damage, but flooding occurred on the first and second floors and in the basement.

Criminal court day on Thursday in District Court was unaffected by the flooding.

It’s the second major flooding incident in a county building in a little more than a year. In December 2011 a heating malfunction caused a fire suppression sprinkler to spray water throughout the newly renovated Flathead County Courthouse, causing damage on all three floors.

Elite Systems was working on an upgrade of the sprinkler system at the Justice Center to meet fire codes, County Maintenance Supervisor Jed Fisher said.

When the county remodeled the County Attorney offices recently, it was discovered that some sprinkler heads weren’t compatible with the others. The county had a directive from the Kalispell Fire Department to match all the sprinkler heads, Fisher said, and work was under way to make the upgrade on the second floor. Eventually, sprinkler heads on the other floors also will be replaced.

“The contractor was on the very last head of the second floor and as he pulled the last head it opened up a 3-inch main line and doused him, and he couldn’t find the shutoff valve,” Fisher said, adding the accident happened around 8:45 p.m. Wednesday.

It took about five to seven minutes before the shutoff valve was found in another location and turned off, but by then “there was a river running down through the ceiling,” he said. “When I arrived the water was about an inch and a half to two inches deep.”

Pence — who arrived at the Justice Center around 11 p.m. — issued a memo to county officials at 2:30 a.m. saying “significant water was released at this one point at high pressure.” The water flowed into the Justice Court offices, hallway and courtrooms, and then into the three northerly County Attorney offices.

There was also minor water damage in the Information Technology front office area, but not in the main IT equipment room.

Water leaked into the Sheriff’s Office and one holding room in the jail.

“There was immediate response by our maintenance staff ... who extracted water from the carpets,” Pence said in his memo. “They deserve huge credit for minimizing the impact.”

Both Fisher and Pence credited Sheriff Chuck Curry for pitching in to protect areas and move boxes of records to dry places. County Records Manager Jan Hardesty retrieved the wet records and is working to dry them out.

Rainbow International was called immediately and arrived within five minutes to dispatch crews to extract water.

“It was a fine-tuned machine for a bad accident,” Fisher said. Fans will run for about five or more days, and there will be ceiling tiles to replace along with repair to drywall.

An insurance adjuster was onsite Thursday to assess the full extent of the damage.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

Gale Force fans are jumbled up with the furniture in Court Room 2 on the second floor of the Justice Center Thursday morning.

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