Problems with the fire protection systems at the Edgartown courthouse have been known since at least 2001, when a state report recommended a series of upgrades to increase safety in the 1856 brick building that sits in the heart of downtown.

But the upgrades were never completed, and last month the courthouse was flagged again for fire safety deficiencies, this time by the Edgartown fire chief following an inspection by the state fire marshal. Last week Dukes county commissioners voted unanimously to transfer $50,000 from the county reserve account to cover the cost of needed improvements, including replacement of smoke alarms and detectors that date to the 1980s.

At a follow-up meeting on Wednesday this week, county manager Martina Thornton said she has met a number of times with fire chief Peter Shemeth and Edgartown building inspector Leonard Jason Jr. to discuss the problems.

The current fire alarm protection system is probably not functional, and not even able to be tested, Mr. Shemeth told the Gazette this week.

“We have no idea whether it’s working or not,” he said. “You would have to get up there and physically spray smoke into the detector. Are they functional 100 per cent? No, but to what degree I don’t know. The test wouldn’t be very accurate.”

Chief Shemeth toured the building last Thursday with the chief court officer of the Massachusetts Trial Court, and again on Friday with a representative of the state fire marshal’s office.

“The fire alarm system has to be replaced,” Mr. Shemeth said. “The most logical thing to do is, if you’re replacing the fire alarm system with something new, you would incorporate some of the new safety devices along with it. The technology has improved vastly since 1980.”

In the short term, the fire chief has instituted a fire watch system at the courthouse, where checks are made of all rooms every 15 minutes. County emergency management director Chuck Cotnoir is in charge of the fire safety checks.

At a special meeting last week, county commissioners vowed to act quickly to correct the problems.

“It’s our obligation to provide a safe place for the public and for our court and our court employees,” said commission chairman David Holway.

“I like everyone else felt that all public buildings had fire suppression systems and or alarm and smoke detectors,” said commissioner Leon Brathwaite. “I was personally shocked to find out the [smoke detectors] were not functional.”

This week Mr. Brathwaite said he would like to see a system that includes visual flashing alarms, audible alarms, heat sensors, carbon dioxide sensors and better emergency lighting.

“If at 5 p.m. on a winter night the building went dark, there’s actually very few areas where there is light in the hallways and some of the rooms,” he said. “That needs to be addressed.”

The county owns the courthouse and is responsible for maintenance and upkeep. The majority of the building is rented to the state for use by the district, superior, probate and family courts.

In 2001 the state Division of Capital Asset Management hired consultants at the Maguire Group in Foxboro to assess the condition of the building. The primary areas evaluated were life safety inside and the exterior building envelope.

The 15-page report that followed surfaced last week at the county commission meeting. Among other things, consultants strongly recommended improvements to the fire safety system, which at the time was already about two decades old.

“The existing fire alarm system consists of independent smoke detectors located in some rest rooms and four heat detectors tied to a small control panel,” the report said. “The existing fire alarm system is not a complete system and does not meet current code standards.”

Consultants noted that because the courthouse is an older building that predates the state building code, it is not required to be up to code unless significant interior alterations are performed.

Nevertheless they called the improvements a high priority.

“Doing so . . . . will markedly increase overall life safety at modest cost. A supervised system of smoke detectors, heat detectors, audible alarms, and manual pull stations at the points of egress should be installed to form a complete code-compliant fire alarm system,” the report said.

The total estimated cost of the improvements at the time was about $12,700.