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.
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.
One of the true joys of teaching around the country is that I learn so much from the people I meet. My recent trip to South Carolina is a good example of that. I had never been to a training facility for fire fighters before and Columbia, SC has one of the best in the country. I learned that when you see fire fighters using hoses on a building on the 10 o’clock news, that’s called “media” water. By the time that occurs, the building is a total loss and there’s no one left to rescue. A number of speakers talked of the need to fight fires smarter using modern science instead of relying on emotion and tradition. Part of being smarter is installing sprinkler systems in residential structures. However, South Carolina is going through the same fight over that provision in the model building code that other jurisdictions are. It is not going to happen for the foreseeable future there even though fire prevention personnel know it would save lives and property. South Carolina also heavily relies on volunteer firefighters. It came as a great surprise to me that the administrative chapter of the IFC has not been adopted by the State of South Carolina and it is left to local jurisdictions to adopt it, many of which do not. This creates a situation where fire inspectors cannot write tickets for violations of the fire code and must rely on the building official to enforce the code. This creates some very unacceptable dilemmas for these inspectors (in my opinion). I was impressed with their dedication despite all of the obstacles put in their way.
I am teaching this weekend at the Southeastern Fire School in Columbia, SC. The campus here is incredible. Many of the training classes are taking place out of doors in buildings that can be set on fire or filled with smoke. I’m told it is one of the top three fire academies in the country. Even the dorm I am writing this from is pretty decent. I will post more when I get back.
One of the constant problems I run into with defendants is trying to make sure proper service of notices or citations occurs. Too frequently defendants refuse to accept these documents making it more difficult to obtain enforcement. When I teach Legal Aspects and discuss this issue, I suggest a few crafty options. For example, you do not have to put your return address on the outside of the envelope making it obvious the papers are coming from your jurisdiction. I’ve had inspectors who have sent envelopes with balloons imprinted on them with the heading, “Prize Headquarters”. One inspector I know collects greeting card envelopes in which to send notices. When I taught at Region III recently I discussed the various ways to serve these uncooperative individuals including amending the code to include service by private carrier (doesn’t everyone sign for FedEx or UPS?) Some of the women in my class went home and took my suggestions even further. They sent the notice in a box with items (like free pens, pads of paper and magnets) to further entice the defendant to accept service. And, it worked! Thanks to the folks in IA for this tip of the day.
A young woman lost her life in Chicago recently during a fire. The fire began in a unit in a high rise apartment building, the residents fled the fire but left the door open so one of their pets could escape, the unsuspecting woman took the elevator up to the floor where the fire had spread, and was overcome as soon as the doors opened up. The building did not have sprinklers, a fire alarm system or an automatic recall elevator system according to ABC news in Chicago. The City of Chicago had delayed forcing older building to conform to the fire code by extending the time for compliance in its ordinance. In an interesting development, the State Fire Marshal cited the building owner for 19 violations of the fire code including the above violations which violate the Life Safety Code. Building owners are now arguing that they are confused over which law to follow. The State of Illinois has adopted the Life Safety Code as its state code. Chicago has home rule powers but that doesn’t exempt buildings from following state law unless state law grants such a waiver. Unfortunately, Illinois is hodgepodge of laws. We don’t have a state building code. Local governments basically adopt whatever they deem proper for the locale though most of the cities and villages I know of do adopt the Life Safety Code in addition to the IFC as their local ordinances. The caselaw in this area uses a balancing test weighing the cost of the upgrades versus the safety of the public. The safety of the public usually prevails which is why owners can be forced to retrofit their buildings. We know what prevents loss of life in fires but the outcry from building owners that delay upgrades due to the cost too often results in loss of life.
At the Springfield conference, my topic was effective code enforcement programs. After hearing about all of the substantive issues involving healthy homes, it was really a privilege to be able to speak about how to accomplish our mutual goals. There was a lot of frustration over the problems we are facing because budgets are being slashed, programs cancelled and properties are getting worse because of the foreclosure mess. Despite this, it was important to find out that there are a lot of committed professionals who are forming partnerships to address these issues. And, there are steps inspectors can take that don’t cost much money to implement, for example, making sure that renovators are certified in lead paint removal before issuing a building permit. Who knows how many health problems children are spared because of this simple procedure? The training in Springfield was offered free of cost as were many of the publications. I hope my readers will make use of the links I have created to find these organizations. I want to thank Eleanor Davis from the IDPH, Lead Paint Program, for inviting me to speak at the conference and giving me the opportunity to meet the other speakers. I hope it will lead to even better enforcement opportunities.
One of the most interesting speakers at the Springfield conference was Dr. Catherine Karr, who is a pediatric environmental health specialist. She reviewed a wide variety of home health hazards including lead paint, radon, mold, carbon monoxide, fire, and pests. So many of these topics intersect with property maintenance and fire prevention enforcement. She is a member of a group called PEHSU (Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units) which is a national network of academic-based centers of expertise that service health care providers, public health professionals, communities and families. Asthma, for example, is a huge health problem for children and adults and is made worse by living in homes that have mold problems and pest infestation. Illinois is included in the Great Lakes Centers’ Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit based at the University of Illinois at Chicago. All areas of the country are part of some regional unit. PEHSU is a great resource for information on all of these issues. When inspectors are dealing with a property where children live, the long term effects of the unhealthy conditions should be a top priority for enforcement.
Persons who do work without a permit or allow bedrooms in basements that are in violation of the building code risk more than fines. In a tragic case in Ann Arbor, a homeowner’s daughter died along with another person because of a fire in the basement. The owner was charged with renting without a certificate of compliance, illegal occupancy of the basement, inadequate smoke detectors, and inadequate exits from the basement by the local prosecutor. The public just doesn’t understand how building inspectors save lives.
The Chicago Tribune has taken on lenders over the devastation that has befallen neighborhoods while they sit back and let property deteriorate. I’ve noticed a phenomenon in my practice when I’ve researched properties in foreclosure that have code violations. Lately I am seeing more and more foreclosure actions that are stalled after the lender obtains a judgment of foreclosure. No sheriff sale takes place or the sale is canceled. The lender doesn’t take the steps to get the deed and tells the local government that it’s not responsible for the property even though the owner is long gone. The article in the Tribune discusses the consequences of such business practices:
Such legal maneuvers by banks, which in many cases either walk away from properties that aren’t worth selling or let foreclosure proceedings languish in an overwhelmed court system, have left thousands of dilapidated vacant houses in ownership limbo citywide.
At the same time, the financial industry is fighting against proposed legislation in Illinois that would make it responsible for the upkeep of a property once a foreclosure suit has been filed if the property is vacant.