Siemens being investigated by Nevada fire marshal

Company's maintenance of fire systems at seniors home, hotel-casinos questioned

A company with a multimillion-dollar contract to install fire systems at the Strip's massive CityCenter complex is under investigation by the state fire marshal for questionable maintenance at Southern Nevada locations including a Las Vegas seniors home and three hotel-casinos.

At issue is whether the practices of Siemens Building Technologies risked the safety of sleeping hotel guests and elderly people with limited mobility.

State Fire Marshal James Wright confirmed his investigators are talking with the Clark County District Attorney's office about possible criminal charges for Siemens, an Illinois-based company that installs and services complex electronic systems. The focus is the quality of Siemens' past maintenance of fire systems at Charleston Retirement and Assisted Living, Bill's Gamblin' Hall & Saloon on the Strip and Laughlin's Edgewater and Colorado Belle hotels. Systems at the locations have since been repaired or are being repaired, Wright added.

Fire code violations are misdemeanors, while obtaining more than $500 on false pretenses can be fraud, a felony. Whether to prosecute is the district attorney's decision.

Wright would not say if investigators and prosecutors disagree about possible charges: "We're not going in (aiming) to make a felony. We go in saying, 'This is what we found. And these are the statutes we think the violations concern.'"

Siemens is conducting its own investigation.

"We take every allegation very seriously and continue to investigate and cooperate fully with the (Nevada) Fire Marshall's office to ensure that all of our systems fully comply with the codes," said Siemens spokesman Steven Kuehn in a written statement.

Siemens area manager Christopher Reyes, based in Las Vegas, declined comment.

Siemens' $100 million contract at CityCenter also covers installation of systems for energy conservation and security. The firm is part of Siemens AG, a German electronics and engineering company with a worldwide reach.

A former Siemens employee triggered the state's investigation when he went to county fire authorities last June. Whistle-blower Joe Estany, 44, alleged in a written statement that Siemens technicians sometimes failed to repair system malfunctions. Instead, he said, they simply rewired or reprogrammed to mask electronic cues that would identify components that weren't working, potentially leaving a facility with less fire protection than codes require.

"They tricked the system," he told the Review-Journal.

Estany believes Siemens did superficial maintenance to reduce nonbillable labor costs if a client held a full-service contract.

But the company's paperwork indicates full inspections were done and no deficiencies found, according to Estany. Fire departments in Nevada's large urban centers do not routinely double-check the work of private firms licensed to inspect fire systems, such as Siemens.

"High gross margin and profitability were the motive not to go back and repair anything, or for that (matter) write up any discrepancies," Estany wrote to the county fire department. That contact led to a flurry of inspections of sites maintained by Siemens in Henderson, Las Vegas, Primm, Laughlin, and Clark and Nye counties.

Margaret McConnell, an owner of the Charleston home, told the Review-Journal her reaction to a Las Vegas fire department visit last August in one word.

"Mind-boggling," she said, of the news that the facility's fire system was compromised.

Inspectors issued a "fire hazard warning" and ordered a manned watch until the system worked properly.

McConnell said she fired Siemens on the spot.

"Anything they (Siemens) asked us to do, we commissioned. My whole life is dedicated to protecting these people," said McConnell, who has operated the Charleston facility for 24 years. She said Siemens started servicing the site in late 2005.

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