Bayou City

Audit Finds 28 Flaws in Houston's Fire Safety Inspection System

Audit Finds 28 Flaws in Houston's Fire Safety Inspection System
Flickr/Christopher Ebdon
An audit of the Houston Fire Department has detailed a series of shortcomings in the department’s ability to inspect buildings for safety hazards, maintain a regular inspection schedule and keep accurate inspection records — and even keep track of all the city's high-rises.

The 82-page audit, released by the city controller’s office, focused on the department’s Life Safety Bureau, which is responsible for building inspections, permitting, fire safety education and code enforcement. Auditors for the controller's office flagged 28 areas that need improvement.

Among them: The bureau wasn’t properly following its policy of making high-risk buildings — like hotels, schools and tall apartment buildings — a priority for inspection. Instead of sending field inspectors to examine those buildings, the audit found the bureau often simply provided checklists to facilities managers of those types of properties so they could self-inspect.

In another instance, auditors found that the Houston Fire Code allowed buildings to be certified for occupancy without a fire safety inspection — contrary to the International Fire Code, which is used by many cities around the world as a model.

Because of this, auditors found buildings in the city in which “fire apparatus accessibility was inadequate, building exit signage was incorrect and required fire prevention permits were not acquired/maintained.”

In addition to finding that some of the bureau’s guidelines had not been updated for 15 years, and that the bureau often failed to communicate well with the rest of the fire department, auditors griped that their work was hampered because the bureau’s record-keeping system was a mess.

“Records are either nonexistent or scattered in various places,” the audit says. As a result, auditors were unable to determine whether the bureau inspected buildings according to the Fire Code or its own standards.

Making everything worse was that not only did firefighters fail to keep records, they blew their overtime budget as well. In 2015, the bureau had $1.6 million available for overtime, but spent $800,000 above that. Many of these hours were due to outside groups' calling for fire marshals for large events or building site inspections — but auditors faulted the fire department for not billing these groups for the services.

Of particular note, given the recent apartment fire in London that claimed 12 lives, was an auditor’s finding that the fire department hasn't been keeping track of all the new high-rise buildings going up across the city. There are about 630 high-rises in Houston, but auditors said the fire department adds new towers to its high-rise inspection list only when they are “accidentally found by inspectors in the field,” or when they are occasionally notified by another city department.

The audit gives the fire department anywhere between a couple of months and two years to correct each of the problems listed. The document also contains the fire department’s initial plans to find a solution for each.

In a statement released to reporters, the fire department pledged to make the following changes:

-The [Live Saving Bureau] has recently implemented a risk-based inspection program to materially improve the effectiveness of the HFD's inspection process and drive increased public safety. The program provides a framework focused on prioritizing and scheduling recurring inspections, and improved management reports of permit requirements.

-New data entry tools to provide real-time management metrics increasing the efficiency of inspectors and decreasing errors associated with manual data entry from paper forms.

-Council approved the purchase of a new information management system with several critical technology enhancements necessary to fully meet the objectives of the program. The technological improvements are longer-term initiatives which will help the LSB and all of the permitting and code enforcement resources within the City of Houston to build upon its accomplishments.

-Along with the audit recommendations we are implementing a process from A&M Consulting that reviews current property data and allows for frequent updates to reprioritize properties. The result is a vetted inventory of properties with a risked-based inspection schedule.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Zach Despart is the managing editor of the Houston Press and oversees the news and music verticals.
Contact: Zach Despart