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A sorry tale of lagging inspections

Inspections often fall short of goals and requirements.

A fire department inspection audit from the City Controller’s office in Houston, released last week, was particularly alarming. It focused on the Life Safety Bureau of the Houston Fire Department, laying out 28 problems considered to be high risk.

While fire department management assured the auditor that it is addressing the issues mentioned, the scope and quantity of issues must have been alarming to residents. One example: As the Houston Chronicle pointed out in its June 15 article about the audit, just 526 of Houston’s 5,000 plus apartment buildings were inspected in the last two years. This falls far short of the goal of 470 of these inspections each month.

One clear problem is that the Life Safety Bureau is “highly understaffed” in relation to the number of buildings. Houston is the fourth largest city in the U.S.

The number of high risk issues in Houston may be extreme, but inspections in many places and for many different areas of city, county and state oversight fall way short of requirements and goals. We wrote about this problem in Governing last February: “From Food to Buildings, Safety Inspections are Lagging.”

Since we researched that column, we have noticed the issue continuing to crop up for different areas of government oversight, such as dam inspections, which have fallen behind schedule in California, or nursing home inspections, which have been lagging in Ohio.

Here are some of the highlights of the Houston report:

  • Occupancy permits were often issued without inspections

  • Many policies and procures had not been updated in years

  • Department teams and units did not communicate with each other

  • Record keeping was poor, with no document management system and some inspection records scattered in file cabinets and desk drawers

  • Overtime costs were beyond estimates

  • New high rise buildings were not reliably added to the bureau’s building master list

  • Inspections were not consistently performed and inspection records did not clearly show what building components had been checked.

  • Of the 5,000 plus apartment locations, 4,818 had no inspection date recorded. The inspection rate for “apartment locations” was just 5 percent in Fiscal Years 2015 and 2016.

  • There were no inspection reports found of the three major airports

  • The bureau’s database was not updated to reflect changes to the fire code that were made in 2012. Due to “resource constraints” copies of the fire code amendments have not been provided to inspectors.

  • There were no established inspection cycles for “apartments, hotels/motels, airports & heliports, mid-rise atriums, general occupancy buildings and hazmat/high-piled storage facilities.”

Like so many issues that are focused on prevention, inspection shortcomings are rarely a high priority until something terrible happens like the Oakland Warehouse fire last year or the tragic high-rise fire in London last week.


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