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The Contractor's Declaration -
Is Vancouver Really Safe?

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Tech-News SPECIAL REPORT

THE CONTRACTOR’S DECLARATION (AUTHORIZATION) VERSUS AN ACTUAL SITE INSPECTION - AN OVERVIEW.  IS VANCOUVER REALLY SAFE?

Vancouver - April 3, 2010 - By Frank Kurz

What exactly is a Contractor’s Declaration and how does it compare to an actual site inspection by qualified individuals?

Both processes start off with the contractor applying for a permit. Application for a permit usually involves submittal of drawings describing the scope of work proposed, the type of equipment being installed, and any other relevant information. The drawings are reviewed by a specially appointed individual that cross-checks the submitted technical data against the requirements of the Vancouver Building By-law (VBBL), Canadian Electrical Code and other relevant codes, bulletins, and standards. He's called the Plan Examiner.   At this stage, the contractor and designer may also be asking for certain special permissions, relaxations, and variances that may help reduce cost without affecting the integrity of the design or the safety of the installation. The Plan Examiner is usually involved in this process, but the final decision for acceptance, along with any recommendations or amendments that may be required all fall under the purview of the City Electrician (the individual charged with ensuring the provisions of the VBBL, the Canadian Electrical Code, and the Provincial Safety Standards Act are maintained in all respects).  Once the drawings are "accepted", a permit is issued and the work can commence.

THE INSPECTIONS PROCESS:

In Vancouver, there are a number of electrical inspectors and each is assigned to his specific area of the city (district). There is a reason for this. Some contractors don't travel far from their own little areas of operation and familiarity with the neighbourhood also means you've got a pretty good handle on the people living there as well as the building addresses. On the smaller jobs if you know the contractor you can have a higher level of confidence in their work. By that I mean you don't have to make surprise visits to ensure they are meeting the requirements of the safety standards act (that the ratio of journeymen to apprentices is correct, for instance, and that the individuals performing the work are properly licensed). On the other hand, if you're familiar with the contractor's lack of work ethic, you can remain "on top" of the various stages of work and ensure they all pass muster. I have had occasion to witness the effects of a "stop work order" issued to just such a contractor. Once this happens, the expense to the contractor (and sometimes the owner) will significantly increase (as will the time to complete the work because more inspections must be scheduled). I've even seen some contractors walk away from a job when this happens!

Projects normally have several required inspection stages. The first one occurs just after all the wiring is installed and immediately prior to when they start insulating the walls. This inspection is crucial because it's the only time the wiring methods and materials used can be properly checked (all the walls and ceilings are open and the wire runs are fully exposed to view).  If the inspector is satisfied that all the requirements of the approved drawings, and any relevant bulletins have been met, he issues a field report that states the wiring is "OK to cover". This allows the primary contractor to go ahead and install the insulation, vapour barrier, and wall board (usually sheet-rock). The next inspection occurs at the stage when the electrical contractor is ready to energize the building's main service (before BC Hydro can connect power). Once this is "OK'd", the contractor can proceed with powering up the project and finalizing the installation (i.e. installing all the lights, appliances, and fixtures).

Two more inspections are normally conducted, the “final” and the “coordinated final”.  For the final, Vancouver requires documentation from the various design engineers involved (electrical, mechanical, plumbing, sprinkler, and structural).  On the electrical side, the "final inspection" is also the one in which the inspector ensures everything is working and that all the wiring is properly terminated. Receptacles are tested for proper polarity, seismic bracing is checked and wire runs above "T-Bar" ceilings are inspected to ensure they are physically supported. If a fire alarm system is part of the building's permit, the verification report is reviewed to ensure it complies with Vancouver's strict policy bulletins (they can be viewed here and here). Once the electrical, plumbing, mechanical and structural elements of the project have all passed final muster, one last inspection is performed. This is called the "coordinated final". It involves inspection personnel from all the various disciplines, the Architect, the Design Engineers, and the Fire Department. Everything (and by that, I mean EVERYTHING) is checked over one final time. If inspectors have made any notes during the course of their many visits, these areas are particularly scrutinized. When everything has been completed, the building’s occupancy permit is issued.

You can see from the above review that a great deal of vigilance is given to every phase of a project’s construction (which doesn't include the additional inspections that could occur at any time, depending on the inspector's "comfort level" with the contractors involved and his familiarity with the area). This was the way Vancouver's inspections branches handled construction projects prior to January 21st, 2010.

In 2009, the City has introduced a new 311 call centre.  The idea is meant to streamline all aspects of communications with the public and contractors between the various levels of City Hall and the regulators. Unfortunately, it's proven to be a disaster in the making for many of the inspections staff. The recent Olympic celebrations have left many contractors scratching their heads over the needless delays occasioned by a miss-communication which involved the cancellation of many of their final inspections during the Olympics and their rescheduling (quite often on the same day and within minutes of each other) immediately after the games.  Every new system like this has its teething problems, but when they involve delays to projects, it starts costing “big dollars” and a lot of frustration.

THE CONTRACTOR'S DECLARATION:

Now we come to the subject of a Contractor's Declaration. This is a very simple document that states that all aspects of the contracted work under the permit have been met, and the installation is safe and ready in all respects for occupancy.  When the inspector "knows" the contractor to be a "straight up" and committed individual, accepting a declaration for small jobs (like receptacle or lighting additions) isn’t a huge issue. In most cases it won't even require attendance to the site. However, where a designer has refused to sign off (or has expressed reservations with an installation) and the contractor issues a declaration anyway (so he can get paid for his work), a lethal cocktail is in the making if an actual site inspection isn't immediately scheduled. Such a cocktail involved a recent high voltage transformer installation at Vanier Park's Olympic venue.  Another one involved the unprecedented acceptance of CE listed equipment by none other than the inimitable Will Johnston, our new City Electrician (and a structural engineer).

THE VANCOUVER OLYMPIC GAMES VENUES & ELECTRICAL SAFETY AFTER JANUARY 21st, 2010:

In point of fact, none of the Olympic venues received final inspections by the electrical inspections branch.  In a policy statement authored by Will Johnston, Vancouver took the extraordinary step of reducing the acceptance criteria to “streamline” the process by which contractors could complete venue related work before and during the Olympic Games.  This eventually formed the basis for the “Olympic By-law”.  What about the process of using Contractor Declarations for the venue installations leading up to the Games, a process that was never formally authorized by Mr. Johnston (also one in which district inspectors couldn’t access sites because they lacked the accreditation required)? Was the public ever “at risk”?  You be the judge.

In the months leading up to the Olympics, Arkady Tsisserev (the former City Electrician) had expressed a great deal of concern over this, and that his district inspectors couldn’t obtain the accreditation necessary to attend upon inspections at VANOC controlled venues.  Hillcrest Curling Facility, the aforementioned “Vanier Park”, Robson Square, Yaletown and others were never finalized properly, although all the requirements under the new “Olympic Bylaw” were being met (which is small comfort in light of what has recently been revealed).  In addition, there were several instances in which Mr. Johnston accepted (or signed off) on venues in which whole sections of the VBBL were simply ignored, the requirement for interconnection of venue fire alarm systems to a central monitoring facility being one of them (although in this instance, Ark stepped in and required each venue to develop a detailed Fire Safety Plan – approved by the Fire Department – in which concerns surrounding notification and evacuation procedures were addressed by qualified personnel).  This required far more stringent measures involving the special training of on-site security and stepped up patrols.  Were these actually implemented?  The city has yet to release these details.

As Bill Good mentioned one day on CKNW (in which the subject of the Arkady Tsisserev’s firing came up):  “Who cares?”  The games are over and, but for a few moments of excitement behind the Canada Pavilion, no one suffered injury by either electrocution or fire.  In fact, it was one great party except for the one tragic event surrounding the death of the Georgian Luger during a training run (and that didn’t even happen in Vancouver and didn’t involve the lack of venue inspection).  Well Mr. Good, many of us in the life and electrical safety communities “care” (and not one of us have any particular “political” aspirations that I know of).

The Mayor and the City Manager have repeated many times over the past few months that the venues were all “safe” and that Vancouver’s Olympic Celebration was a stunning success with a “spotless safety record”.  But several questions still remain unanswered.  Why fire your Chief Electrical Inspector (a man celebrated across Canada as the foremost expert in life and electrical safety) just before the Olympics (particularly when the City Manager has recently expressed such concern for the public’s safety leading up to - and during - the games)?  What could possibly be considered responsible about accepting complex electrical installations based on a Contractor’s Declaration with no actual physical inspection?  Does what amounts to “crossing one’s fingers and hoping nothing will happen" demonstrate an adequate level of concern for the public’s welfare and well being?  Why was no accreditation granted to the very individuals that are mandated by the Vancouver Electrical By-law to provide inspection services and which, in my view, would have guaranteed the public’s safety (and laid to rest the rather disingenuous concerns expressed by the City Manager recently)? 

Even more disturbing, will the Olympics’  “unblemished safety record” form the basis for a plan to reduce the level of inspections even further (or worse, eliminate the entire department and move to the Provincial Inspection model)?  Many fear so and have expressed these concerns in letters and emails to the Mayor and to Council all of which have gone unanswered for over two months! 

Is Vancouver really safe with a Council appointed City Electrician that has limited knowledge of Canadian Electrical Code and has already demonstrated he's willing to accept Contractor's Declarations in lieu of actual site inspections? I’m afraid “spin doctoring” has taken the place of common sense, safety, and truth, and that the citizens of Vancouver now face grave peril.

The Mayor and the City Manager have ignored and outright lied about these issues long enough.  It’s time to take action.  Email the Mayor.  Pick up the phone and call his Honour.  Tell him you want to continue living in the best and safest city in Canada.  Tell him your children deserve it. Tell him you want him to start demonstrating the leadership he promised us all he would deliver.

 

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