Fire Chief Sam PeñaEXPAND
Fire Chief Sam Peña
Photo by Meagan Flynn

Houston Fire Chief Explains How He'll Fix Backlog in Building Inspections

When the city controller released an audit of the Houston Fire Department's Life Safety Bureau, the results were a damning indictment of the bureau's inspection process and its sloppy or, at times, "nonexistent" record-keeping system, as the auditors described it.

Of the more than 5,000 Houston apartment buildings, only 526 had been inspected in the past two years — far below the fire department's goal of 470 per month. Sometimes, inspectors just gave motel, apartment or high-rise owners a checklist of things to inspect rather than doing it themselves. Inspection reports were sometimes nowhere to be found, perhaps because they were strewn about randomly in inspectors' desk drawers or because they were never generated — auditors could not be sure. They could not find evidence that the fire department had inspected any Houston airports in the past two years.

The week the audit was released, fire-safety inspections were, incidentally, on everyone's minds: At least 79 people had just died in the London apartment building fire — one that was so deadly owing in part to the lack of fire-safety inspections and regulations.

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña, who took office in December, said in a statement at the time that a full-blown plan was in the works to address all these holes. On Thursday, he invited reporters up to his office to give the details.

The problem before, Peña said, was one of capacity: There are more than 75,000 commercial businesses in Houston and more than 5,000 apartment buildings, but just 125 inspectors. The Life Safety Bureau's inspection process failed to prioritize any of the businesses based on which inspections would be most pressing, Peña said, and they only inspected places whose permits were about to expire.

"We were treating all commercial businesses as the same level of risk, whether the business handled hazardous materials or equipment, or they were a lower-risk business, like a dog-grooming business," he said. "So we needed to develop a more robust way of operating to identify new risks."

That's where the fire department's new computer software comes in: Inspectors will now be able to rate all buildings' risk levels by plugging ten criteria into the computer model, including the size of the building, whether it has a sprinkler system, whether it handles any hazardous materials and how frequently fire calls have been made to the property. Then, based on the risk scores, inspectors will gauge how frequently buildings must be inspected: The highest-risk must be inspected annually, while the lowest-risk must be inspected every five years.

Peña said that implementing the new software and technology, plus the cost of consulting, has so far cost $650,000, and he is requesting an additional $600,000 from the city to continue moving forward with the plan.

"This is a high priority. It impacts public safety primarily, certainly the citizens of Houston, and it also has an impact on our firefighters, who are responding to these buildings in cases of emergency at 3 o'clock in the morning. So yes, it's a financial investment, but one that's necessary and one that's high priority."

While Peña hopes inspectors can get to 11,000 buildings per year, whether the fire department actually accomplishes that is still up in the air.

Peña said he needs 13 to 15 more inspectors in order to meet the demand. And in a tight-budget year, in which Peña said he is already having to defer certain training courses or special-certification classes in order to keep enough firefighters working in the field, that's a big ask. The city controller's audit also found that HFD was more than 70 percent over its overtime budget, yet another challenge thrown Peña's way. On the whiteboard next to his desk was a to-do list that seemed to be a response to the myriad infrastructure problems the auditor had pointed out, and how Peña planned to fix them. In a question written in red and underlined, Peña had apparently been asking himself, "Are we doing the right thing?"

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