PermitTechNation Pitches in to Break Up Hurricane Harvey Rebuild Backlog
Carey Frazier, plans examiner for the city of Frisco, Texas, had a lot on her mind as she flew to Columbus, Ohio, for the International Code Council Annual Conference this past September.
Her plane was three hours late. That meant she’d miss helping staff the Habitat for Humanity Restore of MidOhio in Columbus as a member of ICC’s Permit Tech Nation (PTN) Chapter. That was one of the volunteer projects PTN does each year with Women in Code Enforcement and Development (WICED).
As a matter of fact, PTN and WICED were being presented with an ICC Community Service Award at the Networking Luncheon at the conference for their volunteer projects for Habitat for Humanity.
Frazier also wanted to help set up the PTN booth at the Building Safety & Design Expo in the convention center. And she thought ahead to the annual PTN meeting where she would be voted in as PTN president, succeeding Cindi Somers of Richland, Wash.
With all this on her mind, her heart still was back home in Texas. That’s where the Building Officials Association of Texas’ (BOAT) disaster assessment team was counting on PTN and the North Central Texas Permit Technicians (NCTPT) chapter to help alleviate a log jam of assessments made along the Texas coast after Hurricane Harvey.
Volunteers had been working in communities, making damage assessments and tagging the damaged structures with green, yellow or red placards. Green placards indicated the structures could be repaired and rehabilitated. Yellow indicated caution to those entering the structures and red indicated the structures were unsafe.
Jim Olk, city building official for Garland, Texas, who heads the team, described the dilemma. “We started the damage assessments several weeks ago along the coast using our electronic assessment tool. When it’s working, you can enter data electronically, and it sends the data back out to FEMA,” he said.
“When we got around Rockport and Aransas Pass, north of Corpus Christi where the eye wall hit and winds blasted 130 mph, there was no internet and no cell phone capabilities. There was no electricity.
“That meant we had to go back to the paper format and use the old ATC (Applied Technology Council) 45 forms for wind and flooding damage. Normally, if the devices were up and operational, we could be entering assessments in real time.”
As ICC board member Shirley Ellis described it, “Transcribing those paper forms and inputting [them] again back at the office more than doubles the work time.”
Ellis had volunteered with the BOAT team to make inspections and post placards on the inspected buildings. When the teams got into neighborhoods where cell phone and internet reception was wiped out by the storm, workloads starting piling up.
There was some thought about getting permit technicians to volunteer and come to Texas, but that wouldn’t work,” Ellis said.
Olk had assigned Jill Stone, zoning inspector for Garland, the task of coordinating volunteers making damage assessments in the communities and finding them lodging during their stays in Texas. Stone said the city building permit offices in the towns were overrun with storm survivors seeking permits to start making repairs or seeking solutions to having no electricity or safe drinking water. The permit technicians behind the counters had lost their homes in the hurricane, Stone said.
“It was a desperate situation,” she said.
What saved the day was a brainstorm between Frazier and Stone while the two were working in storm-wrecked neighborhoods at Ingleside, Port Aransas and Aransas Pass.
Frazier said it was clear the local city offices were unable to handle the ATC 45 forms. That’s when they struck on the idea of asking for help through the PTN network.
“We wondered why we couldn’t just scan these [ATC 45] forms and send them out to other permit techs to input around the nation,” Frazier said. “When we got into town, we got the (NCTPT) board to meet and purchase a scanner.”
They tested it out when they returned to the hotel in Corpus Christi.
“We put 30 or 50 of them out in a Dropbox folder to see if it would work out,” Frazier said.
Dawn Neil, former PTN president from Basking Ridge, N.J., and Tiffany Little, a permit technician for Washington County, Ore., entered the first batch of data into a spreadsheet Olk set up.
“Dawn set it up so we could do this at our desks before work or at home,” Little said. “I did it on a Saturday morning in my living room.”
Neil said the first batch led to the realization their system would work for any of the neighborhoods where electricity, internet and cell connections were down.
“After the data entry was complete, Jill and Carey were able to notify BOAT the data was available to download into a spreadsheet,” Neil said. “This spreadsheet could then be quickly shared to the affected community to supply to FEMA.
“We quickly realized this process would work and moved forward with sending out a call across the U.S. to assist with the data entry using the Permit Tech network and Facebook.” ICC also included the call for volunteers on it’s Hurricane Resources webpage.
Before long, permit technicians in several states were helping enter the data from the Dropbox account into the spreadsheet. While PTN officers were at the Annual Conference, about 30 volunteers were busy entering the data Stone had gathered from Rockport, Texas. Stone was ecstatic with the result.
“With the green tag list [of homes that could be rehabilitated] and Google form entries so far, we have entered over 8,000 properties!” she wrote to PTN members. “We’re on our last leg of entering. Everything has been assigned. Y’all are totally awesome!”
Olk said the work done by the permit technician volunteers in Texas and across the nation saved time and expense for the BOAT disaster relief teams, and also for the communities hit by Hurricane Harvey. It also eliminated the expense of flying, feeding and housing volunteers to perform data entry in Texas when it could be done online.
Neil said she and other PTN volunteers are prepared to do more data entry if similar circumstances arise in Texas, Florida or other states that get hit during the 2017 hurricane season.
“Now that we have created a system that works, we have reached out to the Florida Building Officials Association and are waiting to hear back if we can assist with Irma-related damage,” Neil said.
“This process and our skill set could also be used to assist those in the Pacific Northwest with the devastating wildfires.”
Throughout the Texas experience, Neil said memories of Hurricane Sandy and the tedious recovery period were in her mind. She said several of the 30 permit technicians who entered data were New Jersey residents who also remembered the volunteer help they received after Hurricane Sandy.
“When you experience something like that, it gives you a good perspective with what they’re dealing with,” she said. “You know what people on the ground are going through with all of the emotions and confusion.
“There was no way for the staffs in those offices hit by Hurricane Harvey to process those 8,000 forms in just four days. For us, it was just a matter of entering some data from a bunch of forms. We were glad to help out and to relieve some of the burden from those people.”
Cindi Somers, PTN past president, said she has been impressed with the eagerness of the PTN volunteers to help in Texas and Florida. She said it’s within the nature of local government employees to help out when they are needed.
“It takes a nation,” she said. “That’s what we’ve got going on here.”