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Texas fire inspectors refuse to follow mandated shortcuts

The new policy would force inspectors to perform substandard assessments of buildings that may put firefighters at risk

By St. John Barned-Smith
The Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Houston fire inspectors are refusing to follow orders from a top administrator over building inspections because they fear the rules would endanger the public and put firefighters at risk.

The open insurrection started after Houston Fire Marshal Jerry Ford issued new protocols last year that inspectors believe cut corners on safety in an effort to pad the division’s performance statistics.

“Rushing through an inspection invites tragedy,” Chief Inspector George Meadows wrote to superiors in an October email obtained by the Houston Chronicle, warning that the plan would “water down” the department’s inspection process.

“This will no doubt have a negative effect on life safety. It has already had a negative impact on morale,” he wrote.

Meadows declined to comment about his email, but a half-dozen employees at the Fire Marshal’s Office, who spoke anonymously out of fear of retaliation, told the Chronicle that the new policy would force inspectors to perform substandard assessments of high-rises, apartments and other buildings.

The new policy called for high-rise inspectors to review only every third floor of the city’s tallest buildings, and instituted a daily quota for inspections. In a memo laying out his plans, Ford said inspectors should review each of the city’s more than 600 high rises every year and that employees should inspect three high rises a day - a move one employee deemed “not possible.”

Ford also called for annual inspections of the city’s nearly 7,000 apartment complexes by a team that at the time had just 11 inspectors.

“He just made an assumption this could be done and we were going to do it,” one member of the team said. “That goal is not even reasonable.”

Ford defended the policy in an emailed statement to the Chronicle, saying he wanted to make the inspection process more efficient so on-site inspectors would be familiar with the facility’s fire suppression systems ahead of time.

He did not address the safety issues raised by employees, but said the policy would increase efficiency and allow the department to “perform more inspections, increase public safety and be more fiscally responsible to the community we serve.”

Interim Fire Chief Rodney West said only, “Our line of work lends itself to constant evaluation and process improvements to best serve the community and protect our firefighters.”

The controversy is the latest to hit the Fire Marshal’s Office, which has been riven by a string of scandals in recent years, including a 2014 dispute over safety code violations in city buildings that led to the demotion of the previous fire marshal, who was later fired.

Higher-up demands ‘dangerous’
Randall Kallinen, a civil rights lawyer who is representing some of the employees, said the inspectors are taking a stand for safety.

“Jerry Ford’s orders are extremely dangerous,” Kallinen said. “The concept you can do an inspection of a high rise by doing only one of three floors is ridiculous and extremely dangerous. By Jerry Ford’s standards, you could have the exits not working, the sprinkler system not working, the alarms not working on certain floors, and it would still pass the inspection.

“That puts thousands and thousands of people at risk in the city of Houston,” he said.

Meadows’ email said the policy would put civilians and firefighters at risk.

“The loss of firefighter lives in high-rise fires are well documented,” the email stated. “This plan places an emphasis on quantity and not quality... This new plan is viewed by us as a means to water down the inspection process and inflate numbers.”

High-rise blazes have proved lethal in Houston and across the country in recent years. In 2001, Houston Fire Capt. Jay P. Jahnke died in a high-rise residential fire at the Four Leaf Towers at 5100 San Felipe after being overcome by smoke.

Ford also tried to institute a protocol called the “360 Program,” which required inspectors to send “pre-inspection” checklists to managers and private contractors overseeing or performing work at city high-rises, apartment complexes and numerous other facilities. The program essentially asked them to perform their own inspections and then email the reports back to the fire marshal’s office, with the department labeling them “analytical inspections.”

The 360 program - described as a “bold first step” by fire officials in announcing expansion in September - was presented as a way to track inspections across the city. But staff broadly bucked the order, saying it would artificially inflate numbers while failing to improve public safety.

“You’re letting the fox guard the henhouse,” one employee said. “Why would you tell me you had problems which would bring me out there?”

Others agreed.

“I don’t trust building personnel to do an inspection, because if that’s the case, I don’t see a need for us,” said another employee.

City Councilwoman Brenda Stardig, who chairs the council’s public safety and homeland security committee, said she was not aware of the issues at the fire marshal’s office but would be looking into them.

“All policies and guidelines should be followed as designed to ensure public safety,” she said.

Latest in string of problems
The inspection insurgency follows a series of problems in the fire marshal’s office.

In 2014, fire inspectors balked at orders not to cite city buildings that were in violation of safety codes.

At the time, then-Fire Chief Terry Garrison dismissed the inspectors’ allegations, saying they had “little merit” and came from “disgruntled employees.”

However, the city’s Office of Inspector General launched an investigation into the claims that resulted in a demotion of then-Fire Marshal Richard Galvan.

Then, in 2015, Galvan was fired for “lack of transparency” during a city employment investigation. Galvan appealed his firing and was rehired as an assistant fire marshal, a position he still holds.

Ford, an assistant fire chief, was appointed Fire Marshal last year by Garrison, who has since resigned to lead his hometown fire department just outside Phoenix.

The latest allegations have renewed tensions in the department.

Kallinen said one of his clients complained of recent retaliation after informing Ford’s superiors about problems with the directives.

“With all these scandals, Jerry Ford should not be the fire marshal,” Kallinen said. “This is a continued disregard for safety they have at the top levels, which started when they weren’t properly enforcing violations at the city buildings. It’s more of the same.”

Copyright 2016 the Houston Chronicle