Audit finds Houston fire dept. inspection process in disarray

The audit found that 263 of more than 5,000 apartment buildings were inspected in the last two years, well below the goal of 470 per month

By Rebecca Elliott
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — The branch of the Houston Fire Department responsible for ensuring building safety keeps inadequate records, does not examine buildings on a regular schedule and inflated its inspection numbers, all while blowing past its overtime budget, according to an audit released by the city controller's office Thursday.

The fiscal 2015 - 2016 audit is the latest in a series of blistering critiques of the Life Safety Bureau and casts doubt on whether the city is complying with its fire code.

Many of the 28 high-risk problems — from an incomplete inspection database to poor job training — were identified by the controller's office more than a decade ago.

"It's not a matter of if, it's when, unfortunately, something happens," City Controller Chris Brown said. "We need to make sure that we don't let this one go another 12 years without any action."

Among the latest audit findings:

Just 263 of Houston's more than 5,000 apartment buildings were inspected in the last two years, well below the bureau's goal of 470 apartment inspections per month.

There is no evidence the city inspected Bush Intercontinental, Hobby or Ellington airports within the last two years.

Inspectors provided hotel, motel, high-rise and apartment building owners with self-inspection checklists rather than conducting inspections themselves.

The city does not require the Life Safety Bureau to inspect buildings before issuing certificates of occupancy, except in the case of hazmat facilities.

The "inadequate" — and at times "non-existent" — recordkeeping system consists of storing inspection reports in the city's database, file cabinets and inspectors' desk drawers.

The Life Safety Bureau spent $5.6 million on firefighter overtime in fiscal years 2015 and 2016, $2.4 million over budget.

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Mayor Sylvester Turner's spokeswoman said the mayor, who was returning from a trade mission to Israel, would not be available for comment. 

Fire Chief Samuel Peña, appointed last year, called the audit "helpful" and has pledged a series of reforms in response to the audit. They include working with a consultant to develop a risk-based inspection program and establish a regular inspection cycle by this summer; improving the bureau's database; requiring inspectors to log daily activities; and conducting a staffing analysis.

"We understand, and the audit report makes it clear, that improved controls must be implemented to ensure that the (Life Safety Bureau) carries out its important mission and documents its performance in a timely and reliable manner," Peña said in an email. "We are working to implement many of the measures included in the audit report as quickly as possible."

The controller's audit, which a Life Safety Bureau chief requested, comes at a time of frayed relations between the city and its fire department.

The fire union hit an impasse last month in its efforts to negotiate a new contract with higher pay, and the fire pension board has sued the city alleging the pension reform plan signed into law last month violates the Texas Constitution.

The Life Safety Bureau, part of the Fire Marshal's Office, has been plagued for decades by shoddy record keeping, poor training and questionable inspection practices, audits and departmental records show.

That record came under intense scrutiny last year after a Spring Branch warehouse storing more than 40,000 pounds of hazardous chemicals burned down, eight years after the fire department last inspected it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner responded by calling for the city to more regularly inspect buildings, including those that store hazardous materials.

The bureau previously did not have an inspection schedule for facilities that store hazardous materials, according to the audit, and fire department inspectors called the Chronicle in the aftermath of the Spring Branch fire, asking for the newspaper's map of potentially harmful hazmat facilities.

The hazmat team now is in the process of identifying all of the buildings under their purview, with the goal of establishing an inspection schedule, the audit said.

Copyright 2017 Houston Chronicle

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