A firefighter tragically died in Chicago recently when responding to a call. Unbeknownst to him, the elevator shaft was open where the elevator was being removed, allegedly with no permit. Because of the smoke, he had no way of knowing about this hazard and was killed in the fall. I have been preaching for years about the danger of working without a permit. People cut corners and don’t get the proper permits usually due to the cost or because they don’t want government scrutiny. People die because of this and first responders are often the victims.
I recently had my own experience regarding permits when we needed a new furnace. After speaking with the salesman, I asked whether a permit was needed in my village. He basically said that he wasn’t sure and if we “wanted” to get a permit, we could inquire but many people don’t want “strangers” in their homes and don’t bother. I checked with the building official I used to work with and it turned out I needed one. (In Illinois, not all towns require one). As I told this story to a number of inspectors, they told me that by getting the permit, it pretty well assures me that the installers would not cut corners because they know they will get caught. My opinion is that the salesman was trying to discourage me from getting a permit. I told him so and also that I wouldn’t pay the remainder of the cost until the installation passed inspection.
When a permit is required, it is often because someone died or was injured sometime in the past because of the nature of the hazard. The general public doesn’t understand this and thinks it’s a money making scheme. That has not been my experience. The inspectors it has been my privilege to work with care about safety. Unfortunately, it takes a tragedy like this to educate the public.
I was recently in Columbus, Ohio teaching a couple classes for a conference for OBOA and COCOA. One of the attendees sent me a photograph of a magnetic door closer which I wanted to share with everyone. He told me that the contractor did not have the extender rods so drilled his own holes in electrical boxes and stacked them up in an effort to make the wall magnet reach the door! During the inspection, the door closer pulled the box out of its foam ‘mounting’.
It never ceases to amaze me that supposedly professional contractors would do something like this. What horror stories do you have? Submit them and I will post the best ones. Photographs are always welcome.
Moreno Valley, CA spent $1.2 million dollars in a settlement after employees alleged that they were retaliated against for following the law and pursuing code cases. A former building official and code compliance manager each received $600,000 after allegedly being fired for carrying out code-enforcement actions involving building-code violations by a former councilman. http://www.pe.com/articles/city-760079-former-council.html
It’s important for an inspector to document attempts made to thwart him or her from carrying out official duties. Emails, letters, notes regarding witnesses, and summaries of conversations may be useful at a later time. Even if an inspector doesn’t get a written reply to an email regarding a sensitive matter, being able to show that there was an attempt by the inspector to get guidance from a supervisor or a response from a governmental official may be valuable. People often say dumb things in emails, never realizing that those types of communications are discoverable in a lawsuit.
Criminal prosecutions are rare in the field of building code enforcement but when there is a high profile death that results from shoddy construction, indictments do happen. Recently in Los Angeles, A German architect/contractor was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of a firefighter. The architect designed his own mansion and told the building department he wasn’t going to include any fireplaces in the 12,000 square foot structure. But, then he changed his mind:
Days after Becker was permitted to move in, a fire awoke him and his girlfriend at night. After the fire, authorities determined that Becker built long, natural-gas fire pits meant for outdoor use into the interior of his home. He’s accused of gross negligence for building the frame of the fireplaces with combustible materials, instead of materials such as brick, and for not building any firebreaks inside the walls.
The judge ultimately gave the architect 1 year in jail of which he will serve about 6 months. This is not unusual as defendants usually get credit for good behavior while in jail. Firefighters were angry the defendant didn’t receive a maximum 4 year sentence but the judge said he was concerned that “responsibility for the fire could be shared, because safety inspectors had failed to find the illegally installed fireplaces.” However, evidence showed that he made these changes after the final inspection and even disconnected sprinklers.
I have often found that judges know very little about how the inspection process works. Code officials know that they have little control over owners once the certificate of occupancy is issued. Too many owners create dangerous conditions because they don’t want to spend the necessary money to do things right.
Serving a corporation that owns property is supposed to be easy. Every corporation doing business within a state must appoint a registered agent. The name and address of the registered agent is listed with the agency of the state that deals with business corporations. In many states it is the Secretary of State. When an inspector needs to serve an owner that is a corporation, the paperwork is delivered to the registered agent and the case can proceed to hearing. But, what happens if the registered agent cannot be found? In such a situation, the Secretary of State will accept service on behalf of the corporation if the party can show it used due diligence to serve the registered agent but the person cannot be found. Special forms must be submitted to the Secretary of State but once he or she is served, the court has jurisdiction over the corporation and can issue a default judgment if the corporation does not appear at the hearing.
In my last couple of Tweets, I pointed inspectors to articles involving the explosion of the fertilizer plant in West Texas and a tragic fire in England. It’s a shame we wait until people die before there is interest in better prevention and regulation. It’s human nature to cut corners to save money which is why we need consistent oversight to prevent these foreseeable tragedies. After these terrible events which catch the attention of the public, we always see a flurry of enforcement but eventually that fades until the next preventable occurrence. These are opportunities though to educate the public and why safety inspections are so important.
The Illinois Association of Code Enforcement group does a lot of informative programming for its members. Recently I had the pleasure of attending a day of training and learning more about Compliance Connections which is a division of Safeguard, one of the largest service companies that take care of properties for lenders. I first wrote about Compliance Connections last year after learning about it from inspectors in Minnesota. Everyone has a horror story about the lack of involvement by lenders and service companies used by them but I think some real progress has been made recently. The inspectors I work with have had success using this website (which is a free service) to get grass cut or trash removed. However, the company only addresses vacant property issues due to potential litigation with property owners so there are restriction. In addition, privacy laws sometime restrict service companies from contacting inspectors when a problem with the property arises.
Inspectors can use Compliance Connections to notify a servicer about problems on the property. Compliance Connections should respond and the inspector will get notified about a plan for correction as well as the lender. It can also be used to send information on outstanding bills (e.g. for cutting weeds) so that the municipality gets paid.
The speaker, Heather Lazar (phone 1-800-852-8306 x 1500) encouraged inspectors to report contractors to Safeguard who violate local ordinances by working without the proper permits. Safeguard doesn’t actually do the work required but relies on local contractors. If a contractor doesn’t follow Safeguard’s rules, the company may be excluded from future work. Other people to contact when there is an issue using Compliance Connections are Michael Halpern 1-800-852-8306 x 1392 and David Mazanek 800-852-8306 x 1261.
Safeguard will pay for 8 scholarships for inspectors to the AACE conference in Oklahoma City, OK which starts October 30, 2013.
Sometimes you just need to laugh.
One of the inspectors I work with shared this with me about contact information for a property management company taking care of properties for HUD.
HUD has established a contract with PK Management Group c/o Prescient, Inc. to do property management of all HUD properties. The Florida office contact number is 305-854-1711.
I hope this will be useful to you. I have been preoccupied lately with planning to move my office. I will let my readers know all of the particulars as the time gets closer. The contact information will hopefully remain the same.