According to an audit released today by New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr., the FDNY is placing public and firefighter safety at risk by not properly monitoring the self -certifications of fire alarm systems in buildings such as schools, hospitals, and hotels throughout the City.
Thompson's audit, available at www.comptroller.nyc.gov, covered July 2007 through April 2009, and analyzed the operations at the FDNY Bureau of Fire Prevention's Fire Alarm Inspection Unit (Unit) with respect to building owners self -certifying the correction of fire alarm defects. The unit is responsible for ensuring that commercial and high-rise residential buildings in New York City have fire alarm systems that work properly.
"It is clear by what we found that this unit is in dire need of a complete overhaul. Firefighters already have one of the most dangerous jobs in the City and they need to be confident that the proper fire safety measures are being taken to assist them in their duties," Thompson said. "Sadly, we found that this is clearly not the case."
Thompson said that 49 percent of the approved self-certifications audited by the Unit failed the inspection, causing serious concern that there are many more buildings with fire alarms that were self -certified and would also be found to have not been corrected.
"Since half of the certifications selected for review by the Unit came back with failing grades, there is serious concern that not enough attention is being paid to ensure that buildings throughout the City are safe," Thompson said. "The Fire Department needs to set a realistic goal to review self-certifications because what we found could place civilians and firefighters at risk."
The Fire Alarm Inspection Unit is responsible for conducting initial inspections of fire alarm systems in commercial buildings (e.g. schools, hotels, factories, office buildings, department stores, hospitals) and high-rise residential buildings. The unit issues Letters of Approval, Letters of Defect, or in the worst cases, Violation Orders, upon completion of an inspection.
If a building owner receives a Letter of Defect, he or she has the option of having an FDNY inspector follow up to ensure compliance or have a registered architect, professional engineer, or a licensed electrical contractor attest to the operation of the system within 90 days of the issuance. The latter is called "self-certification." Thompson's audit analyzed whether the FDNY has adequate controls over the Unit's self-certification process to ensure that certifications are timely and legitimate.
While the FDNY audited (re-inspected) five percent (57) of the self certifications on reportedly approved (1,139) for FY 2008, based on the amount that failed the re-inspections, Thompson's findings suggest that the percentage of random checks is way too low.
In addition, the FDNY could not provide files for 5 of the audits, bringing the total sample Thompson analyzed to 52. One of the 52 files did not have evidence to indicate that it was audited.
He recommended the department increase the percentage they audit to ensure that all deficiencies cited on the Letters of Defect have in fact been corrected.
Thompson's audit also uncovered serious deficiencies in the Fire Alarm Unit such as:
An unreliable system for tracking professional certifications ‒ including incomplete and inaccurate information in the database and a lack of communications between staff regarding updating the schedule of inspections;
Missing hard-copy inspection files ‒ causing the inability to ensure that Letters of Defect were properly addressed in a timely manner;
Inconsistent inspection information recorded on reports ‒ a sample of 81 field activity reports prepared by inspectors showed 30 percent had missing information or were inconsistent with information contained oin the files; and
Lack of an annual rotation program for inspectors and supervisors ‒ causing the same inspectors and supervisors to monitor the same areas for extended periods of time. This increases the chances in which bribery and overlooking violations may occur.
In addition, Thompson found a lack of procedures governing how long it should take to review self-certifications and conduct audits of the certifications. There was no evidence that the alarm unit was able to ensure that self-certifications were submitted to FDNY within the 90-day window they require, starting with the issuance of the Letter of Defect.
In the sample of 52 self-certifications Thompson reviewed, 20 were received and accepted for review after the 90-day period had elapsed, with periods ranging from 92 days to 1,588 days.
"The longer these self-certifications take to be reviewed the more time the public remains at risk," Thompson said. "In one instance, the certification was approved one day prior to the FDNY actually receiving the paperwork. How is that possible?"
Among the most startling findings was the lack of a defined process to categorize the severity of problems encountered in the field by Alarm Inspectors. For instance, Thompson presented a list of 30 defects taken from various Letters of Defect and asked 17 inspectors to rate the defects by how serious they were.
Thompson found that because inspectors use their "professional judgment" in the absence of a defined listing of deficiencies and their seriousness, there was a wide range of opinions on what is considered a serious problem and what is not.
In addition, there are absolutely no criteria for what circumstances may lead to the issuance of a Letter of Defect or Violation Order. As such, the Comptroller had his Engineering Unit review the various Letters of Defect and provided an example of three possible classification categories to group the defects by order of severity.
"The absence of any type of formal procedures can lead to possible abuse of authority and opens the door for corruption," Thompson said.
Thompson's audit also found that by improperly billing property owners for the time spent by Alarm Inspectors conducting audits and follow-up visits, the FDNY is losing out on thousands of dollars. Based on the review of the 51 audits conducted by the FDNY, Thompson estimated that the City was owed $10,255, but owners were charged $6,650. One owner should have been billed $1,960 but was charged $980, half the amount.
"If the City is owed more than three thousand dollars based on a sample of 51 certifications, one can only wonder how much we are missing out in revenue for the more than one thousand cases we did not review," Thompson said. "To add insult to injury, we also found that the City has not raised the rate it charges for inspections in more than 20 years. An increase is necessary to properly fund this unit, which we have clearly found is in need of a complete overhaul."