New audit shows lack of building inspections across Houston

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A disturbing new audit by the Houston Controller paints a worrisome picture of the Houston Fire Marshal's Office.

The Fire Marshal's office, technically the Life Safety Unit, is a division of HFD that handles building inspections.

In the 80 plus page audit, a total of 28 areas of improvements were found.

The most eye popping statistic is that in the past two years, only five percent of the city's 5,000 plus apartment buildings were inspected.

With the exception of hazmat facilities, the city does not require inspection of buildings "before" issuing certificates of occupancy.

Six of the departments 15 safety guidelines haven't been updated since 2002.

There were also findings of major paperwork problems. Often, auditors couldn't find paperwork showing a building had been inspected. When there is paperwork, it's often incomplete or badly filled out.

There is no standard or consistency of operations.

The findings are not a surprise to Willie Gonzalez, who lives across the street from a large chemical warehouse that burned and exploded a year ago.

"I can't say I'm surprised, because for as long as I've been on the street, that was a ticking time bomb," said Gonzalez. He added that he has never seen fire inspectors at the plant, and indeed, HFD had said after the fire that the inspections were lacking.

"At the end of the day, these buildings need to be inspected because the oversight is potentially a public safety threat," said Controller Chris Brown, whose office initiated the audit.

Brown says the fire marshal's office was last audited in 2005, and it hasn't improved.

"There were 12 findings in 2005, 28 findings in 2017, the process has gotten worse."

For residents of some apartment complexes, the audit results are not surprising.

"For anything where you have regulations, where you need to be inspected, there are never enough inspectors," said Erin Chavez-Figueroa, who lives in an apartment complex where a fire burned up four units last weekend.

The Houston Fire Department has worked with the Controller's Office on audit improvements. Brown says he realizes the findings occurred before current Fire Chief Samuel Pena was hired, and believes the new Chief is the right man to make the necessary changes.

Eyewitness News received an official statement on the audit findings.

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.

Report a typo to the ABC13 staff

Copyright © 2020 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.