State workers concerned about security options at Montpelier DMV

MONTELIER, Vt. (WCAX) The Vermont Capitol Complex lockdown last month has some state employees concerned for their safety, especially after plans were announced for a renovation of the DMV building.

During an early morning fire drill Tuesday, it took employees in this five-story state building three-and-a-half minutes to exit using only the central staircase and the front and back entrances.

"It was a planned fire drill, obviously, so I think it went very well," said Tavis Morse, who works on the fourth floor in the Agency of Digital Services. But he says the outcome of a drill doesn't compare to that of a real-time emergency. "I find myself thinking, 'hmm... maybe I should bring in a rope ladder or something in case I have to jump out the window,'" he said.

Last month, Montpelier law enforcement jumped into action after receiving reports of a person entering a state building across the street with a long gun. An investigation later revealed that what observers initially thought was a gun might actually have been an umbrella.

But now Morse and other state employees at 120 State Street -- better known as the DMV complex -- are asking what if? That's because right now as part of the ongoing 120 State Street renovation project, two of the three staircases are closed off -- the two exterior stairwells on both sides of the building. "I feel like they've removed some of our options," Morse said. "If a shooter walks into the building, pulls the fire alarm, and everyone just starts walking down the main staircase, we're all sitting

But Department of Buildings and General Services officials say there's a good reason for that. BGS originally designed a plan to reconstruct the west and east stairwells one at a time, but the fire marshal informed them that could cause security issues. The central staircase connects all five floors, but employees need cards to enter the doors on either side. State fire regulations would require those doors remain unlocked if one of the side towers stayed open, so employees from one side of the building could access the other.

"Everybody was in agreement that the plan that the fire marshal had put together for how they wanted this project to be constructed was the safest way to move forward," said BGS Commissioner Chris Cole. He says if an intruder enters the building, armed law enforcement officers could fend them off. Plus, he says the project should be finished by December or January.

Still, employees like Morse say they feel the state is sacrificing safety to save time and money. "You see the ingredients for the perfect storm," he said.

But Cole argues that isn't the case. "It had nothing to do about money and has everything to do with employee safety," he said.

After Tuesday's fire drill, the security team will reassess the emergency plans and decide if they need to be changed.