Quality Vs. Frequency

Do you think that’s not happening in every city of size in the nation? That the homeless problem, rising rents, and a lack of affordable housing issues have passed you by? Guess again.

When we talk about community risk reduction, we must not forget that “enforcement” is one of the “Es” we use to make our communities safer. I much prefer the method of educating business owners and gaining willing compliance with fire and building codes. But there will always be a percentage who don’t respond to anything other than a violation process and tools to enforce the codes - hence, “enforcement.”

What’s The Number?

My friend Larry Gray reminded me of the importance of this issue in a recent presentation where he asked chief officers how many inspectable occupancies they had in their jurisdiction. Judging by the looks on their faces, at least a few had no real idea. I overhead one chief officer say one. If that’s the case, consider yourself lucky; you have a manageable problem for your community. But if you live in a larger jurisdiction and you don’t know the answer to that question, you’re potentially headed for some serious trouble.

If you don’t have any idea how many buildings and business occupancies within the buildings should be inspected, then you really have no clue how many inspectors you should have to make sure the occupancies comply with the codes. And that should include a component that helps you learn about any structure that could be used for something other than for what it was designed: a warehouse for housing; a small business for auto repair, including paint and welding; or a public venue that was designed for a fraction of the number of people who actually use it on a regular basis.

So, figuring out where you are in terms of businesses that SHOULD be inspected and what it takes to ensure regular inspections of them is the first part of the job in this community risk reduction discipline. Then you can deal with the reality that most jurisdictions face: We don’t have enough inspectors to hit every occupancy, every year. Now what?

Prioritizing Businesses

Most jurisdictions must prioritize the types of businesses they will inspect more frequently than others because they present more of a statistical probability that a fire will occur. Some have had to make the decision that some occupancies will not be inspected at all but rather rely on “self-inspections,” and I’ve seen the results of this type of program when there is a penalty attached to not performing the inspection and sending in the paperwork. It is not the best option perhaps, but it is part of the real-world decision making process of how to meet the demand creatively.

Then there is the issue of where to find “inspectors.” Do I need specially trained personnel, or can I use firefighters to do company inspections and provide them with some additional training to make code-compliance inspections a part of their normal routine? Obviously, many jurisdictions use emergency responders for code-compliance inspections. But more complex inspections require special expertise and training. Those who consider company inspections must also consider where to draw the line between those inspections done by companies and those that receive a more highly trained specialist. That in turn begs another age-old code enforcement question: Which is more important, the quality of the inspection or the frequency?

A low-quality inspection can get you into trouble when there is a fire and a search of inspection records shows one of your employees was there but missed some obvious hazards. Or worse, he inspected the building and noted hazards but never went back to see if they were abated. That just might be worse than not doing the inspection at all because of budgetary constraints. Local jurisdictions are making decisions like this every day, and if you’re not aware of what’s happening, you are begging for a blindside hit.

Unfortunately, there is no research available of which I’m aware that would help us answer some of these questions. The last study I could find was in 1979 (by the Urban Institute), which revealed a correlation between inspection frequency and reduced fire losses. The short version? More inspections produced fewer fire incidents. But how often? High quality or cursory review? We don’t know.

We know that data indicate most fires occur where people live, and so fire code compliance inspections are not the only answer to our fire problems. We also know that just because a particular type of occupancy (i.e., warehouses) experiences far fewer fires over time doesn’t mean we can ignore them. The possibility of a fire always exists, and sometimes it’s the rare but exceedingly deadly event that captures the attention of a community and all of a sudden they want to know what went wrong.

There is some guidance in this area. National Fire Protection Association 1730, Standard on Organization and Deployment of Fire Prevention Inspection and Code Enforcement, Plan Review, Investigation, and Public Education Operations, is available. I know many of the people involved in its development, and they have done a great job translating a certain level of science and their experience into a document that can help a jurisdiction design its code-compliance (and other prevention) programs.

They would be among the first to state that more scientific research is needed because there are so many questions left unanswered. Professional guidance is great, but the need for more research in this area should be obvious.

Current Issue

April 2017
Volume 12, Issue 4