The success of this 20-year-old program at the City of Portland is due to planning, adaptability and relationship-building.
A little program with a long history at the Bureau of Development Services helped expedite essential healthcare services at the start of the COVID-19 health emergency. Known as the Facility Permit Program (FPP), its day-to-day operations include permitting the frequent tenant improvements completed by the building owners and management companies registered with this program.
In early March, with news of the pandemic spreading in the U.S., BDS Director Rebecca Esau began thinking of how to best help Portland's hospitals, clinics, and other health care facilities. They needed to increase their intensive care unit capacity for patients and create new testing facilities, including drive-through testing stations. Director Esau asked Lisa Gill, the FPP manager, to begin reaching out to facilities managers at Portland hospitals, all of which already were longtime customers of this program. Then Mayor Ted Wheeler declared a State of Emergency on March 12.
Facility Permit Program (FPP)
The Bureau of Development Services started FPP in 1999 to serve customers that perform ongoing, interior tenant improvements. This often leads to frequent facility maintenance, upgrades and renovations.
The Senior Building/Mechanical Inspectors in FPP are also certified Plans Examiners, a hybrid position that leads to early consultation and relationship-building from concept to construction.
The program is available to owners of buildings, building management companies and their tenants. Our customers are held to all national, state and local code requirements and standards of plan review and inspection services.
That declaration meant city offices were closed in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. But that didn’t stop the FPP team.
"Once the word came that we were required to work from home, FPP was fully deployed and ready to go. It has been seamless for us,” says Gill. “The general attitude of the FPP program is “we were born ready for this.”
Gill worked all day on Saturday, March 14, reaching out to Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), Providence Health & Services, Adventist Health Portland, and Legacy Health.
“Almost every one of the hospitals responded that day, and we were able to get their COVID-19 responses up and running. That has been the success of the FPP program: the relationship that was already built there.”
First, Gill required each hospital to have one point-of-contact for the FPP team to work with. At OHSU, that person is Anthony Moreschi, a licensed architect that does functional and space programming for the academic and research mission at OHSU.
“The FPP process has been critical to us continuing to work forward with what’s necessary in our response to the pandemic,” Moreschi says.
That response has included temporary tents for triage and testing, emergency department surge space, a lab for diagnostics and a lab for research.
The FPP team immediately started planning for the necessary reviews, anticipating the questions its customer, OHSU, would have to answer to receive its permits. Gill says the coordination at BDS was very smooth.
“We talked with the Building Official, the Assistant Fire Marshall and our Fire Bureau inspectors embedded in FPP. They were great and said, ‘Here's our punch list and by the way, have you talked to Transportation?’ Immediately, on that Saturday the 14th, I emailed Director Esau: Who can I contact in PBOT (Portland Bureau of Transportation) to get information about street closure permits for one of the hospitals? She got back to me within 20 minutes and we were rolling.”
Moreschi, the OHSU architect, says organizing all the different permits his team was seeking was simpler thanks to FPP’s groundwork.
“FPP was able to send us a quick survey with questions it needed answered and checkboxes. Going that extra mile was helpful.”
Planning, adaptability and relationship-building
When Gill says the Facility Permit Program was “born ready” for the unique challenges the COVID-19 health emergency has brought to the construction industry, she can point to the program’s 21-year history as proof. Back then, the FPP inspectors would take their work cars home.
“We were available at a moment's notice, especially for our clients like the hospitals, who wanted us to come do our inspections in the middle of the night when their operating suites were not as occupied,” Gill recalls.
Although FPP no longer operates 24/7, being prepared at a moment’s notice was Gill’s priority when she took over as the FPP manager last year. She understands the importance of customer service, having started her City of Portland career in 1991 working the front desk in City Commissioner Gretchen Kafoury’s office. Gill joined the Bureau of Development Services in 1995 as a code specialist taking care of noise complaints. She eventually worked her way into building code violations and was a management assistant for several Inspection Division managers and the FPP manager.
When Gill was promoted to lead the Facility Permit Program, she immediately started a conversation with the bureau’s director and deputy director about emergency preparedness. She wanted FPP staff to be fully capable of doing its important work remotely again in case of an earthquake or flood. Thanks to that effort, the entire FPP staff was prepared in October 2019 for the bureau’s voluntary teleworking pilot program.
During the pandemic, Gov. Kate Brown allowed Oregon’s construction industry to continue working, but with new processes in place informed by health and safety agencies. A key part of the guidelines is physical distancing.
FPP’s ability to work remotely has meant the sudden addition of more communications tools, such as Skype, Messenger, Facetime, Teams and Zoom. These video calling apps allow an inspector to view job sites from a home office, something Senior Electrical Inspector Dave Scranton personally appreciates. One of his customers is OHSU, a facility that sees over 1 million patients a year.
“When video inspection became an option, that alleviated a lot of the anxiety and stress. In my family, there are immune issues and my elderly mother-in-law lives with us. I was worried about contracting the virus.”
Scranton also sees the silver lining to these major business disruptions during such an unpredictable moment in history. The FPP team has successfully implemented not only video inspections, but electronic plan submittal and review through ProjectDox.
“For me, it’s been a great shift in how we used to do business. I think the contractors are really appreciative that we were able to keep the ball rolling and we may have even found a more convenient way to do some of the inspections via video. It’s efficient.”
He admits that part of the learning curve is directing the person at the job site to get him different camera angles for proper video inspecting. And then there are the typical challenges with cell phones.
“This last inspection happened to be down in a basement area where he wasn't going to have reception. So then we had to figure out a way around that. He took a series of photos and a couple videos of the entire installation and basically showed me every square inch of the pipe runs and everything. It was really pretty cool.”
FPP by the numbers
19 registered customers
200+ registered customers
66 buildings participating in FPP
1,000+ buildings and sites participating in FPP
42 projects processed
1,271 projects processed (average per year since 2015)
|86 permits processed||4,455 permits processed (average per year since 2015)|
Gill recognizes her team’s can-do attitude is a major asset to the city.
“I rely on the knowledge, skill and ability of the FPP staff. Every step of the way, they have stepped up and stepped in where necessary to remove the barriers or to be innovative in how we get the information we need to get permits out the door.
Gill describes another reason for her team’s effectiveness.
“It's a little bit easier to think outside of the box because our Senior Building/Mechanical Inspectors are also certified Plans Examiners. That has made it a lot easier for customers to talk through conceptual ideas with our reviewer/inspectors.”
FPP can trace its success to the relationships that have been developed between building owners and the assigned FPP inspections team. Customers are encouraged to communicate early and often, starting well before construction plans are made.
“From the beginning, FPP has relied on a combination of creativity and flexibility in our approach to City of Portland business. This includes open and honest, two-way communication with our customers,” Gill says.
Architect Moreschi agrees.
“OHSU has been in FPP for over 20 years. We’re not hiding the ball, everybody knows we’re doing our best to communicate clearly, on a regular basis. And the City of Portland is communicating with us on a regular basis. Just having that basis of trust, I think, is what allowed us to work through our COVID-19 response projects so quickly.”