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Eugene (Ore.) Considers the Purpose of Code Enforcement

Issue 5 and Volume 3.

I’ve written about the concept before, but my friend Mike Thrapp, the fire marshal in Eugene, Ore., has put the concept of outcome-oriented prevention into real-world practice. For the purposes of this article, I’ll focus on only part of what Mike and his prevention team have impressed me with: fire code enforcement.

A consideration of code enforcement begins with a few questions. First, what’s the purpose of code enforcement inspections? Is it, as others have said, to catch the wrongdoers? Or is it something deeper? If we ask ourselves what the expected outcome should be, we must conclude that code enforcement is one method of maintaining public safety. Identifying fire hazards and abating them—what the codes specify and require—doesn’t have to be our job exclusively. The ultimate goal is to reduce hazards, thereby reducing risk and, hopefully, the number of fires.

Check Yourself

Having business owners and operators identify their own hazards independently of our compliance inspections isn’t a new concept. Many have tried, and abandoned, self-inspection programs before. But the concept is attractive. If a business owner were educated about basic hazards and allowed to inspect their own property and abate them, it would save time and money and still produce the desired outcome: reduced hazards. But in practice, most who’ve tried it found that without some kind of follow-up, most businesses ignore the process.

In one case, I even found that the business community, originally attracted to the idea, didn’t want the liability of trying to identify hazards on their own. Code compliance is ultimately the responsibility of the business owner, but the ones I spoke with about self-inspection liked the idea of sharing the burden of identifying hazards with their local government.

A Better Way

So self-inspections alone aren’t working well. What next?

Others have tried pre-inspections, but Mike and his crew have refined them. They developed checklists according to occupancy type, mailed them out to specific businesses and then linked them to more information on the fire marshal’s Web page.

This pre-inspection process is designed so that business owners and operators identify and abate hazards before an inspector arrives. If they do this, then any necessary follow-up inspection is free of charge, regardless of whether the inspector identifies other issues. The business gets the follow-up work free because they’ve done their part for hazard abatement. If, on the other hand, they haven’t addressed the hazards on their list, then any subsequent re-inspection is billed to them.

The concept is the same as that of self-inspection, but with built-in follow-up and a financial incentive for compliance. It doesn’t place all the burden of identifying hazards on the business owner, but it does make them a partner in safety. And the pre-inspection checklist is the tracking record that indicates the work was actually done.

Personally, I think the idea is worth exploring. It takes more work up front, but it can create a level of awareness regarding fire safety that business owners would not ordinarily have. It might even save some time in the long run.

Mike is the kind of person who likes to get into the details. If you’re into the details too, check out their entire operation, including their checklists, by visiting www.eugene-or.gov/portal/server.pt. Link to the fire marshal’s office through the “City Quick Links.” There are examples for special events, fraternity and sorority housing and daycare facilities, to name a few of the examples they provide. I, for one, will be looking forward to Mike’s report on progress.

Conclusion

Eugene is doing a great job of being proactive in the inspection process—keeping their customers in mind and trying to get them actively involved in solving code problems. Businesses aren’t waiting for an inspector to arrive, but instead are getting the message about hazards and how to abate them. It’s by talking to one another that we learn the most. Maybe Mike and Eugene’s story will lead others to come forward with ideas for improvements of their own.