Arlington County found ways to work around the pandemic … and might never change back
One night in mid-March, Shahriar Amiri was having trouble falling asleep. The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was spreading throughout the area, and as chief building official for Arlington County, Va., he knew they would have to change the way they operated to keep building safety running as smoothly as possible. He called an emergency meeting the next day to brainstorm how the problem should be addressed. “We got more questions than answers,” Amiri said. “So I called another meeting where we focused on those issues.”
With an office closure looming and staff working remotely, one issue was how to handle the permit applications submitted in-person or over the phone — about 150 people come into the office daily for permits and 250 apply over the phone, with only a handful done electronically. Within a few days, Amiri’s department was able to switch the permit application process to all-electronic so that people could submit plans by email using PDFs. The plans went into a queue waiting to be assigned to a reviewer and then went through the usual process, setting up inspections as necessary. By March 23, a plan was put into effect to have inspections done virtually as much as possible by summer. “We went from an A-to-Z change in the way we operate in five days,” he said. “We just built on what we had.”
Amiri also conducted live webinars on April 1 and April 9 to walk through the process for all building departments. Ryan Colker, vice president of innovation at the International Code Council, also tapped Amiri for help with a webinar on remote inspections.
In a normal year, Amiri said, they process about 18,000 permits and conduct 75,000 inspections. Since March 23, they have been able to conduct 3,000 inspections, and not for your run-of-the-mill projects. “We are the smallest county in the country by area,” he said. “But we have many buildings that are 28 to 40 stories tall, with several levels below grade. So these are complex structures.”
Arlington County offers a detailed process on its website of how to apply for inspections, how to prepare and how to conduct them. All building-related inspections (building, electrical, mechanical, plumbing, energy and Certificate of Occupancy) may be considered for virtual inspections, according to the website; however, based on the size and/or complexity of the project it may not be possible to conduct virtually. Inspection complexity will be determined by the inspector. For inspections deemed too complex for virtual completion, the county will accept third-party inspections per the county’s policy on Third-Party Inspectors. Customers must also have a smartphone or tablet connected to Wi-Fi or 4G wireless service, according to the requirements, and be able to use Google Duo (all devices), FaceTime (Apple OS devices) or Microsoft Teams (all devices) to host the video call.
Serendipity played a part in his department’s quick turnaround. “We replace our computers here every few years,” Amiri said. “Two years ago, I insisted we get laptops instead of personal computers. We already have mobile phones. This has helped us tremendously in working remotely.”
The other change was a response to the notoriously bad traffic congestion in Arlington County — it can take two-and-a-half hours to drive each way for inspections. Last year, Amiri started a pilot program for virtual inspections. Contractors love it, he explained, and inspectors not having to get stuck in traffic do as well. “We may not go back to the other way,” he said. “Think of all that time and gas we are saving.”
And using virtual capabilities can help not only the department but the building industry as well. “We have such a difficult time finding qualified people in our business these days,” Amiri said. “But why couldn’t a person work remotely in other cases? We have a woman, probably the best employee we ever had, a plans reviewer, who had to move to Houston because her husband got a new job. Four months after she left, we re-hired her.”
Amiri said he is very proud of how his department has responded so quickly and efficiently to the new challenges due to the pandemic. “I wish we could have done all this years ago,” he said. “What do they say? Be careful what you wish for.”