Letter to the Editor: Community Risk Management a Must After Surfside Building Catastrophe

The Surfside, Fla. building collapse has offered up for view several areas of responsibility: the condo board, a consulting engineer’s report, various city officials, plus someone identified as a chief building official who in November 2018 apparently stated that, irrespective of any engineer’s report, the building appeared to be “in very good shape.”

I am not in any position to comment on who is or is not at fault here. And actually, that is my point: fault will be found and accountability brought to bear, but something else – not someone else – needs the light of day. I’m pointing to the system of accountability.

There are real benefits to using a community risk management process, not as offered by some paid consultant, but as a part of local government. (Dear God, not another meeting!) A risk management meeting that brings together representatives of local government departments who select an issue of concern – for example, pedestrian safety to identify the specific parts of concern (risk factors) such as vehicle speed, intersection design and signage – prioritize those factors in terms of potential impact and then propose changes that offer the greatest gain for the least loss, which can also include financial costs.

The goal is to fix a problem by identifying and prioritizing the things that cause the problem and, starting with the highest priority risks, considering changes to mitigate or eliminate them. And to do this within a group process so no one is left out and no one single voice dominates, providing a more level playing field. That’s risk management; it’s simple, costs little if any money and can result in savings of, if not money, perhaps pain.

One can only wonder what such a group meeting might have been like while reviewing the problems of the Champlain Towers – had the meeting consisted of city trustees, consulting engineers, condo board representation, fire, police and other government representatives. Identifying and prioritizing the risk factors could have more clearly pointed to the problems that could (and did) bring about a crisis, and solutions that, though perhaps unpopular, would at least be supportable as well as deemed necessary.

Oh, to have been that “fly on the wall” for such a meeting. Local community governments can do more than be a fly.

And now the question: Woulda, coulda, shoulda such a meeting prevented such a catastrophe? Would it have? Possibly. Could it have? Yes. Should it have? Who knows?

The negative side of reducing risk can be cost, of which it appears there was plenty to add up. The cost of any remediation for any issue is a factor that should be considered – as measured against the severity and likelihood of harm being caused. Another variable is assessing severity and likelihood of harm; at some point, deliberations often call for at least somewhat of a subjective opinion, expert or not.

One outcome is certain: a risk management meeting would have helped make clear exactly what the risks were, how significant each was and what it could take to remedy the most significant. Another is that risk-managed decisions that are made occur within group discussions, rather than independently, one entity to another, like the telephone game. 

Alan Pakaln
Croton-on-Hudson 

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