The earthquake on January 12 in Haiti should make us all pause and be grateful for many things: The country we live in, the kindness and generosity of people to help those in true need and, believe it or not, the pesky rules and regulations we have to follow here in the United States. While most of us in construction curse the government and the rules we have to follow, it is those same rules that separate the effects of earthquakes in Haiti from those in Los Angeles.
Reports and pictures of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that shook Port Au Prince were not lost on the engineers in developed countries like England, Germany and North America. Stories and reports of shoddy construction practices are made by the mainstream media and I think it’s good that the spotlight shines on this typically overlooked but important piece of the disaster puzzle.
Reports of earthquakes in these underdeveloped countries can also lead to the exposure of government officials who were on the take. Often bribes were paid to overlook very minimal building codes. A piece of the story that seems to go unreported is the people offering the bribes. This too makes me grateful to live in this country. I am not naïve enough to believe bribes never happen, but unlike some countries, where it may be considered “just part of doing business,” we tend to weed this out and publicize the offenders and prosecute them.
As wall and ceiling contractors, we will always run into an inspector who is unreasonable. I dealt with city employees that were drunk with power, filled with notions of grandeur and stubborn to unreasonable degrees. But they honestly believed they were for the greater good. “Public Life Safety” is their mission and we need to respect that.
I began to see that motto from a different perspective as I taught construction. I spent social time at building inspectors’ conferences and got to know them and their deep feelings. I was also there when a mudslide in western Washington destroyed some homes that took the lives of an entire family. The mood was somber at the conference as we watched the news media have a field day blaming the inspectors, city planners and other government officials for incompetence.
The public and news media became a lynch mob. Putting myself in their shoes, I understood that protecting the public was of the utmost importance and they do this for a very modest salary. I saw their deep concern and sadness and it made me change the way I taught classes and dealt with field inspectors. I typically started a presentation with acknowledging that their job may be the toughest in construction (“Protect the Public”) all the while being hated and making a modest salary. I found my relationship with them improved and I was able to explain the next toughest part of their job was the impossible task to be an expert at all phases of construction. For example, I know very little about concrete work and even less about electrical and plumbing issues. Having me inspect those items could put the public at risk. Since it is impossible to be an expert at all facets of construction, particularly as it gets more complicated every year, inspectors need experts they can rely on, and count on for honest, fair advice to ensure public safety. I vowed to always be there for them, to be honest and help them make a good judgment and back them up when others attacked them.
SHE WILL BE BACK
As we watch Mother Nature deal out her fury around the world, the test of how prepared our individual societies have lived up to the social responsibilities of public safety will be challenged. Successes will be whispered, failures will be shouted. Unfortunately, Haiti did not pass this test and people died-lots of people. We should think about that as we meet with the inspector on the job site. Yes, this person may be over-zealous and may be a thorn in your side, but consider the alternative: your family in a building constructed to the standards and practices of Haitian construction. Maybe with this attitude and an appreciation for what the inspector is up against, the project might go better.
The reality is we have some great quality wall and ceiling contractors. We also have some unscrupulous ones that will cut corners and put public safety at risk. In these times, it is more important than ever to remember “price is what you pay, value is what you get.” W&C