Houston’s Fire Chief said Thursday his department is making big changes after an audit revealed major issues.
Inconsistent inspections, lack of communication between divisions and other city departments, and paper records scattered across filing cabinets and desk drawers were among 28 high-risk problems identified by the audit, which the department requested and was performed by an outside company.
Chief Sam Peña blames a legacy system he says treated all commercial facilities with the same level of risk and only prompted inspections when a permit expired, leaving very little room to identify new risk.
During a Thursday morning news conference, the chief said there are “not enough inspectors to inspect everything on an annual basis.”
Now Chief Peña says his department’s getting smarter about how its 125 inspectors can figure out which of Houston’s 75,000 commercial properties are the riskiest and prioritize those first.
Since the audit, Chief Peña says the department has created a master list of all businesses and is currently labeling how often each should be inspected – once per year for the riskiest, and every 5 years for the least risky.
To do so, they’re using a new risk assessment tool also being used by departments in New York and Atlanta that looks at 10 factors, including number of fire calls, materials being handled, whether the building has a sprinkler system, and how many people live nearby.
The ultimate goal: 11,000 inspections per year, which the chief hopes “will get us where we need to be on a 5-year basis, and if there’s any gap, it’s going to be minimal.”
Chief Peña says a new electronics records system will make it easier for inspectors to hit more properties.
“If we’re able to capture a signature on-site and either print or email the final report on site, that frees us up from having to drive back and forth,” Chief Peña said.
He also hopes by allowing other city departments to use that same records system and share information, it’ll help prevent tragedies like a March 2017 deadly fire at an overcrowded southeast Houston boarding home, which had been on the radar of multiple departments.
Chief Peña says new technology will also allow supervisors to track inspectors’ performance and should take 18 to 24 months to get entirely up and running.
Despite an extremely tight budget, the chief assured KHOU the department has already locked up the money to make these recommendations a reality.