Cameras mulled for building inspections
August 30, 2010
ASPEN – The building departments of Aspen and Pitkin County are exploring the use of cameras to document their inspections of mechanical systems and other parts of new homes and commercial buildings.
The use of cameras is being pondered after two building inspectors were indicted on criminal charges for their work at a home where a family of four died of carbon monoxide poisoning in 2008. The government employees inspected the house at 10 Popcorn Lane near Aspen more than three years before the deaths.
There are “always efforts to improve procedures,” said James R. True, special counsel for the city of Aspen. “Criminal filings aside, there was a tragedy in 2008.”
True and City Attorney John Worchester met with city building department officials on Wednesday to discuss possible changes to the building inspection process. “We are reviewing it – procedures, documents used,” he said.
Stephen Kanipe, chief building official for the city, said there has been no definitive decision to use cameras. “We considered several options and that’s one,” he said.
Another option is to expand the amount of information included on the forms that inspectors use while checking if a building meets code, Kanipe said. An expanded form would more thoroughly reflect what the inspectors do in the field, he said.
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Currently, a general checklist is used on the inspection form, even though inspectors conduct a much more detailed review of buildings and components like the mechanical and plumbing systems.
There is no timetable for deciding on alterations to the procedures. “We want to put it in place as soon as it’s feasible – once a decision has been made,” Kanipe said.
Tony Fasaro, the chief building official in Pitkin County, said the department is looking into use of still or video cameras to document inspections of mechanical systems, railings on stairs and other features of buildings that are connected to “life-safety issues.”
The county department hasn’t reached a conclusion on whether it will use video or still cameras, or nix the idea altogether. If cameras are used, the department must determine how to store the information and how it is accessed, Fasaro said. Video would have much greater storage requirements, he noted.
The building department has consulted with the county attorney and the information technology department in its quest for answers.
“It’s a work in progress,” Fasaro said.
He has called around to various other jurisdictions to research if any other building departments document their work with cameras. So far, the answer is no, Fasaro said.
The obvious advantage of using cameras is to document conditions at the time of the inspection. Numerous sources in the construction industry acknowledge privately that it is common practice to make alterations to buildings after the inspections are completed and a certificate of occupancy is awarded.
By taking video or pictures of conditions at the time of the inspections, government officials would be off the hook for subsequent alterations.
On the other hand, video or pictures would also document conditions if an inspector missed something that wasn’t up to code.
The 9th Judicial District Attorney’s office hasn’t released evidence yet to show why inspectors Eric Peltonen and Brian Pawl were charged in the carbon monoxide deaths case. They were indicted after a grand jury deliberated behind closed doors.
Peltonen, a former city inspector who is now retired, assisted the county building department by inspecting the house at 10 Popcorn Lane on June 20, 2005. He marked that the project failed the “building final, mechanical and plumbing” inspection, according to a copy of his report.
Pawl, a county employee, marked that the project passed his inspection on Aug. 16, 2005, noting that the corrections required by Peltonen had been made.
Peltonen faces four class-five felony charges of criminally negligent homicide and four misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment. Pawl faces the four misdemeanor charges.
The city and county governments are providing funds for the inspectors’ defense. They have both hired attorneys.
Marlin Brown, the owner of Roaring Fork Plumbing and Heating, a subcontractor who allegedly worked on the Popcorn Lane house mechanical system, was also indicted on the four felony and four misdemeanor charges.