For the past two years, Houston’s been in the middle of a construction boom. New hotels, high rises and apartments are soaring into the Bayou City’s skyline.
But very few of those new buildings are actually being inspected by the Houston Fire Department.
“Five-thousand apartment buildings, and only 5 perfect had been inspected,” said Chris Brown, City of Houston Controller. “Right there, I think public safety for residents in those buildings.”
A new audit released Thursday by the City Controller’s Office delivered a scathing critique of HFD’s Life Safety Bureau, the department responsible for ensuring building safety.
“We need to know for public’s sake that they’re safe,” Brown said.
The audit documented 28 high-risk problems from incomplete inspections to poor training. It’s troublesome news for the public and firefighters alike.
“The firefighters are going into these buildings when we do have a fire,” Brown said. “They’re at risk. These structures may not be sound.”
Back in May 2016, a massive Spring Branch warehouse fire erupted, sending plumes of black smoke and flames shooting into the sky.
The fire re-ignited concerns about HFD’s Life Safety Bureau. Concerns were first identified in a 2005 audit.
Now this audit confirmed questionable inspection practices haven’t improved in 12 years.
“Forty-thousand pounds of chemicals in there,” Brown said. If we had inspected it, they would have noticed way too many hazardous chemicals in the facility. They would have flagged them and forced them to remove it. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and a fire broke out there.”
The audit also found HFD’s Life Safety Bureau went $2.4 million over budget in overtime, raising more questions about how such overspending is even possible if the department is failing to inspect thousands of Houston buildings.
HFD Chief Samuel Peña released the following statement Thursday:
"The Houston Fire Department (HFD) thanks the City Controller’s staff for the time and diligence they placed into this audit. The Department found the audit report and recommendations helpful in identifying areas where improved controls are needed within the Life Safety Bureau (LSB).
"As detailed in the HFD’s response and implementation plan, we agree with the majority of the recommendations. The Department had previously recognized some of these same issues and began to develop solutions. As a result, the Department has already taken steps to implement some of the suggested changes throughout the LSB.
"Those steps include:
- The LSB has recently implemented a risk-based inspection program to materially improve the effectiveness of the HFD’s inspection process and drive increased public safety. The program provides a framework focused on prioritizing and scheduling recurring inspections, and improved management reports of permit requirements.
- New data entry tools to provide real-time management metrics increasing the efficiency of inspectors and decreasing errors associated with manual data entry from paper forms.
- Council approved the purchase of a new information management system with several critical technology enhancements necessary to fully meet the objectives of the program. The technological improvements are longer-term initiatives which will help the LSB and all of the permitting and code enforcement resources within the City of Houston to build upon its accomplishments.
- Along with the audit recommendations we are implementing a process from A&M Consulting that reviews current property data and allows for frequent updates to reprioritize properties. The result is a vetted inventory of properties with a risked-based inspection schedule.
"Nevertheless, we understand, and the audit report makes it clear, that improved controls must be implemented now to ensure that the LSB carries out its important mission and documents its performance in a timely and reliable manner. We will continue to work to implement the measures included in the audit report."