- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2001

The fourth embassy fire of the year and second in a week occurred yesterday, calling into question the limitations faced by D.C. fire and safety officials in protecting the foreign-owned mansions.
Yesterday, the ambassador's residence at the Maltese Embassy suffered minor smoke damage from an electrical short in an attic storage space.
Ambassador George Saliba said the embassy, located at the corner of 29th and Albemarle streets NW, is one of the oldest buildings in the area. Malta bought the property in the 1960s and converted part of the residence into office space. He thinks the buildings were inspected at the time of sale, but not since.
Alan Etter, D.C. fire department spokesman, said fire inspectors told him that the State Department is supposed to be working on a compromise to allow safety officials diplomatic authority to enter the embassies.
Although State Department officials did not know anything about such a measure, workers in the Office of Protocol said the way it operates now is based on Article 22 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, which states: "The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission."
Many of the embassies are housed in stately older buildings, which may be more prone to electrical shorts, the cause of two of the recent fire-related incidents. Last week, the Estonian Embassy sustained severe damage due to a short in the electrical system and the Spanish Embassy suffered minor fire damage. In January, a defective furnace destroyed the Algerian Embassy in Adams Morgan.
Mr. Etter said electrical shorts in older buildings are not normal, but there is a higher risk involved.
"That can be a problem in older buildings. The older the infrastructure within the structure, it awards more of an opportunity for something to occur," he said.
"No one is ready to say that there is a systematic problem with the embassies. We have several structural fires in D.C. every day."
Mr. Etter said an embassy would have to request for D.C. fire officials to set foot inside the premises. He said depending on the embassy's insurance, independent contractors sometimes survey the buildings.
"They are seen as foreign soil. It would be like a foreign nation making a request," said Mr. Etter, who could not find any inspection paperwork for the embassy.
"We don't inspect the embassies. We would like to inspect the embassies," he said.
Mr. Saliba said he told officials in Malta within the past few years that the utility network in the buildings may be substandard, but to no avail.
"I look and see older houses, and the electrical systems are not up to scratch," he said. "It's hard to persuade people back home to replace things until something happens. The wiring is old. I would feel much safer if they were replaced."
He said an electrician will inspect the wiring system soon and that insurance will cover damage the building suffered yesterday.
The ambassador said he was the only one in the building yesterday when a smoke alarm went off around 8:30 a.m., automatically dialing 911. There was a faint smell of smoke, so he went outside, where he saw smoke coming from the roof.
A 30-man crew of firefighters arrived on the scene within 10 minutes but did not hook up any hoses. Mr. Etter said there was no fire to put out, but firefighters cleared smoke from the attic. No damage is visible from the exterior of the building and fire officials gave no damage estimate since the incident was so small. Business as usual resumed around 9:30 a.m.

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