Adapting with pandemic procedures, Santa Monica provides a clearinghouse for other jurisdictions
Most of the city of Santa Monica’s building inspections are being done remotely during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, using various social media platforms to give its inspectors a good idea of what’s being done on a project so far. In doing so, the city hasn’t had to turn down one request for permit or inspection since California’s governor issued a shelter-in-place order in mid-March, closing down city office buildings to the public, said Ara Sargsyan, building official for Santa Monica.
He stressed that he and his team still are implementing all pandemic safety protocols: social distancing; handwashing with sanitizer; and wearing safety masks. And if they see a contractor violating any of these guidelines during an on-site inspection, he said they have no problem delaying the inspections until contractors comply. “That kind of message goes out to other contractors very quickly,” Sargsyan said. “You have to follow the rules.”
All plan review staff that desire to telecommute are authorized to do so, Sargsyan said. Permit issuance for plan review projects will be done via emailing of documents, verification of fees paid online, and then issuance of the permit via emailing of the scanned permit. All counter resources will be shifted to phones and email. They’ll also push to make sure people can get into their homes as soon as possible, making smaller, but critical projects like heating and plumbing a priority.
Contact them by 1:30 p.m. — pushed back from 3:30 p.m. — weekdays, he said, and they can get back to you the next day. While 80 percent of inspections can be done remotely — telling the camera holder to slow down at some points — Sargsyan said some inspections need to be done on-site, such as when rebar blends into the concrete, making it difficult to get a good picture. “This takes longer, but we have to make sure everyone is safe,” he said.
Although the number of requests have been down since COVID-19 cases began to spike in Santa Monica in mid-March, Sargsyan said they’ve still had some pretty sizable projects, including a major complex with underground parking and housing developments. This would be enough to handle during such an emergency, but as president of the Los Angeles Basin Chapter of ICC, Sargsyan also feels some responsibility for the 89 jurisdictions in the chapter. He helped start a Facebook page so those jurisdictions could share their pandemic experiences, troubles and solutions. “I saw they were doing virtual inspections in Anaheim, and that had been something I had been thinking about for a while,” Sargsyan said. “Luckily, we already are set up for electronic permitting, so we just started the video program earlier.”
He and others can only make recommendations, he said, since not all jurisdictions have the same ordinances and capabilities. “The city of Los Angeles just began a video inspection program as a pilot program last year,” he said. “Others have seen the video inspection protocols we posted and asked if they could use them. We said, ‘Sure, that’s what this is for. Just change the logo for your town.’”
In setting up the Facebook site-sharing, Sargsyan said he wanted to show his Los Angeles Basin members that the International Code Council is more than monthly chapter education programs. “When you have an emergency, you can’t always work the same way,” he said. “You have to use what tools you have left. We are open and functioning. But we are keeping safe.”