How Local Governments Can Prevent Building Disasters

The remains of the Champlain Towers Surfside Condominium in Florida after its partial collapse in June.

The remains of the Champlain Towers Surfside Condominium in Florida after its partial collapse in June. istockphoto.com/felixmizioznikov

Some governments are beginning to take steps to prevent the kind of tragedy that took the lives of nearly 100 people in a Surfside, Florida, condominium collapse in June.

In late June, a 40-year-old condominium in Surfside, Florida collapsed, resulting in the death of 98 individuals. That served as a deadly wake-up call. Almost immediately, widespread concerns emerged that building safety inspections in many places might be insufficient.  

This wasn’t just a Florida phenomenon. Indeed, the ripple effect of the Surfside disaster spread nationwide. Elected officials in Kansas City, New York City, Los Angeles County, Jersey City, New Jersey and a number of other places called for making significant improvements to inspection policies.  

While tragedies often precipitate desires for policy change, including some chronicled in a recent New York Times article, these reforms are only part of the battle. Government weaknesses are often found not in policies, but in their lax implementation. In the last several years, we’ve seen a parade of performance audits that drive that point home, often describing ways in which government inspection performance falls short of policies and plans.  

The key is “having good processes in place,” says Sharron Walker, city auditor in Scottsdale, Arizona. “From my standpoint, it’s a matter of on-the-ground implementation rather than policy at the council level.”  

Walker has evidence to back up her perspective. In 2018, an audit in Scottsdale  found that goals for the frequency of fire safety inspections were often missed. In a sample of higher risk sites, which included facilities such as schools, large commercial buildings and hazardous material storage sites, the goal of an annual inspection by the Fire & Life Safety Division was achieved for only 16% of the structures. Close to half had gone two years without an inspection. Inaccuracies and missing information were also found in the data system that was supposed to document safety inspection results.

The Scottsdale fire department reacted to the audit by implementing a new tablet-based process for inspections and reprioritizing the structures that needed a close look.

There are many kinds of government inspections. Some take place during the design or development phase of a building and are connected to a permitting process. Many others target specific parts of a structure after it’s built, such as elevators or electrical systems. 

But whether a city is inspecting it elevators or deciding whether to issue a permit, the problems are similar. Naturally, the lack of funding, and the insufficient capacity to perform inspections thoroughly and on a timely basis, probably leads the list. Difficulty in bringing in the necessary personnel is also a common issue, which is only exacerbated when building booms or other city expansion efforts take manpower and attention away from prevention-oriented activities.

Here are four of the other challenges confronted by cities and counties trying to keep their residents safe: 

Staff turnover. The inability to keep trained personnel—both in leadership and inspector positions—hobbles many efforts. In Oakland, California for example, in the three years following the 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire, in which 36 people died, the city had three fire chiefs and three fire marshals, according to a September 2020 Oakland audit

Inaccurate data and missing information. In a September 2020 audit of elevator safety in Dallas’s city-owned buildings, auditors observed that the three agencies responsible for elevator inspections did not have a complete list of the elevators under their jurisdiction. 

An accurate list of elevators was also missing when a Richmond, Virginia audit in August 2019 examined inspections undertaken by the Department of Planning and Development. Of 34 annual elevator inspections sampled by the auditor, inspection documentation was missing for 18. And while Virginia law requires current elevator certificates of inspection to be clearly posted for the public, certificates were not current in 17 of the 34 sampled cases.

Lack of follow-up. Nashville audit from late 2019 found problems with supervisory review of inspections and noted that “follow-up inspections were not performed for all failed inspections.” According to the audit, of 15 failed inspections in its sample, 10 did not receive follow-up. This was an even bigger issue with school inspections -- none of the sampled 15 failed school inspections received a follow-up reinspection.

Substandard inspector performance. In early August, the inspector general in New Orleans filed a report recommending felony charges by leveled against a former building inspector whose inspection reports prior to the October 2019 Hard Rock Hotel collapse, in which three construction workers were killed,  indicated she was at the construction site when Global Positioning System records showed her car was not near. Similar problems have also been raised with two other building inspectors: none of the three still work for the city.

Closely Watching Inspectors

New Orleans is taking actions to prevent this from happening again, and now keeps a much closer watch on inspectors. Its Office of Performance and Accountability works with the city’s Department of Safety and Permits to create automatic ways of matching GPS records with inspection reports. “We’re looking for the right car, in the right place at the right time,” says Melissa Schigoda, director of the performance and accountability office. Data will also be used to identify any instances of inspectors being assigned to inspections for which they do not have the appropriate credentials. 

Of course, government inspections won’t put an end to the disasters caused by design construction errors or private sector property neglect. As Tammie Jackson, director of the New Orleans safety and permits department, points out, when private companies and buildings are involved, government inspectors are only one part of an oversight process that also depends on the engineers who are hired by firms to oversee design, construction and a wide variety of safety issues.

It takes time and considerable effort to transform inefficient or ineffective inspection processes. Sometimes it requires a disaster to wake people up. In other, more fortunate places, city leaders recognize that dangerous problems may have been overlooked in the past and are putting a greater emphasis on finding them before unaddressed shortcomings turn into headline grabbing disasters.   

In Austin, Texas, for example, the audit office took a highly critical look at inspections in the Code Department in 2010 and again in 2016, finding little had changed. It was only in 2018 that a reform effort, dubbed “A New Way Forward” began to transform inspection processes by setting up a new prioritization approach, hiring more inspectors and establishing dashboards to monitor inspector case load and case status.

An audit office special examination in December 2020 outlined a number of these positive steps, while also observing that improvements were still needed. “When we first looked at code inspections it was really bad and a few years later it was still pretty bad,” says city auditor Corrie Stokes. Now, she says, “they’re moving in the right direction.”

Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.

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