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Building Safety’s Essential Role in Resilience and Recovery

The pandemic has exacerbated building departments' chronic under-resourcing. We need to invest in technology to boost their efficiency and enable them to carry out their critical functions remotely.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began unfolding, many local governments were already struggling to find the funding to support the full range of public services. Then came business shutdowns, further depressing local tax revenues. The federal CARES Act, the economic stimulus package passed in March, provided some relief through a $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund for state and local governments, and most of this funding has — rightfully so — gone to supporting health-care infrastructure.

But there are other services that play an important and vital role in communities' pandemic response, resilience, economic recovery and long-term success. Building safety enforcement is one that has been and should continue to be considered an essential function both during the pandemic and as part of the recovery. It's code enforcement officials, for example, who ensure that the parking lot tents and converted hotels providing pandemic surge capacity are constructed and operated safely, and that regulations that require disinfection of ventilation through mechanical systems in hospitals are enforced.

However, despite the vital role of building safety departments and their impact on industries such as commercial construction, real estate and homebuilders, many departments are struggling to maintain the high level of functionality needed to perform their essential duties.

Chronic under-resourcing has led to shortcomings that were exacerbated by the pandemic. According to an International Code Council survey released in April, 93 percent of the more than 1,150 responding building and fire prevention departments were still performing code enforcement inspections, but 6 in 10 did not have the capabilities to carry out critical functions remotely. Upgrading building departments with the tools needed to perform essential tasks via the Internet — from approving permits to conducting virtual inspections — can speed up construction of both residential and commercial projects and improve customer service without sacrificing public safety.

Building code adoption and enforcement are the backbone to a safe built environment. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, modern and well-enforced building codes are one of the most effective means to prepare communities for natural hazards. Strong code enforcement can help to reduce losses from catastrophic weather events such as windstorms by 15 to 25 percent, which makes funding critical so that building departments can make the switch to digital processes and maintain full function as they face down the dual threats posed by the virus and other natural hazards.

Investments that establish or improve virtual capabilities, including the deployment of technology that enables remote plan review, permitting and inspections, as well as online access to codes and standards, can help mitigate permitting challenges for the construction we need now. In addition, the use of new technologies can speed the restart of the economy and produce lasting reductions in operational costs and permitting timelines. We've seen a 20 percent increase in productivity by moving from paper to electronic inspection logs.

With so many state and local governments facing severe revenue downturns, it is understandable that building departments are not the first to come to mind for funding during this crisis. However, without adequate resources, the safety of the general public is put at risk, and delays to permitting and inspections are a threat to the overall economic recovery. Through federal Coronavirus Relief Fund resources, building safety departments will be able to implement immediate improvements, and we can expect to see those upgrades pay dividends long into the future.

For governments with available funding, it is as simple as a quick note to local building departments to better understand their needs and how officials can provide much needed support. Where funds may not be as available, it is still beneficial to connect with local building departments to identify strategies for bolstering building safety.

No one expects tax revenues to return to pre-pandemic levels soon, and whether the next federal economic stimulus package might provide substantial fiscal aid to state and local governments is anybody's guess at this point in the ongoing, off-and-on debate in Washington. But regardless of where funding might be found, the essential services provided by building and fire prevention departments need to be on government officials' radars.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

CEO of the International Code Council
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