Op-ed: Beware giving city Department of Buildings more authority on inspections

March 28, 2023
Oren Barzilay
Darryl Chalmers

March marked the somber anniversary of two fatal gas explosions that rocked the city—in Harlem (March 12, 2014) and in the East Village (March 26, 2015). Both led to stringent reforms regarding the installation of gas plumbing lines within hundreds of thousands of buildings in the city. 

In 2016 the City Council enacted reforms amending the New York City Construction Codes  to provide for greater regulation of hazardous fuel gas work. Local Law No. 150  added Article 423 to the licensing code, establishing a strict new “qualification for gas work,” effective Jan. 1, 2020, which severely restricts who can perform such hazardous work.

Yet recent litigation shows that the city’s Department of Buildings, its historically most troubled agency, is defying these relatively recent laws, throwing caution to the wind in favor of noncomplying bad actors.  

The law unambiguously states that it “shall be unlawful to perform gas work” without a Buildings Department-issued gas qualification, ensuring that the pool of welders who perform this work will be the most experienced, skilled and highly trained welders.  

Plumbers Union Local 1 recently filed a lawsuit that alleges gas piping installations in city buildings are often performed by unlicensed or improperly qualified workers, whose poor workmanship on critical welds routinely goes uninspected and ignored by the Buildings Department. This is in direct conflict with the city’s laws.  

The lawsuit in state Supreme Court seeks to require the Buildings Department and City Hall to adhere to laws and regulations enacted following those tragic gas explosions. The filing offers countless examples of Buildings Department approval of illegal gas work. In just two weeks in November, the Buildings Department was found to have approved 460 projects with defective gas welding documents.

If that is not horrific enough, the Buildings Department now wants to take over fire safety inspections of buildings from the city Fire Department. This would put the critical task of physical inspections—walking the halls, rooftops, basements and alleyways of every single commercial, residential and industrial building—into the hands of an agency that, over countless decades, has consistently proved itself to be ill-equipped to perform such tasks. As the gas plumbing litigation alleges, the Buildings Department barely enforces the inspections and oversight already under its control.

If an agency is already not adhering to new city laws governing gas piping safety, and not enforcing mandated licensing requirements, how can that same agency be expected or trusted to take over the Fire Department’s inspections of buildings for fire safety?

The short answer is, it can’t. 

We understand that Mayor Eric Adams wishes to expedite construction to make way for 500,000 housing units, but “relaxing” key safety laws is not the way to go about it.

According to a recent report by city Comptroller Brad Lander, the Buildings Department is the largest city agency with a vacancy rate above 20%. Of the 500 budgeted positions devoted to inspections, the comptroller found only 355 were filled, leaving a 29% vacancy among those who would specifically be tasked with handling these new inspection and oversight powers.

It is sad but necessary to note that time after time the state attorney general’s office and district attorneys across the city have been forced to investigate bad actors in the Buildings Department, in addition to contractors that take illegal and unsafe shortcuts that threaten life and safety.

The bottom line is that there is no room for compromise regarding the integrity of building safety, and regulatory enforcement is essential for public safety. In our haste to meet the housing demand, let’s not give a city agency more responsibility than it can handle.
Oren Barzilay is president of FDNY Local 2507, representing the city’s uniformed EMTs, paramedics and fire inspectors. Darryl Chalmers is an FDNY deputy chief fire inspector and executive board member of FDNY Local 2507.