“It’s been a game-changer.”
That’s how Cherish Berry, general manager of Renewal by Andersen, a custom window and door replacement company, described her company’s recent enrollment in the Field Issuance Remodel program at the Bureau of Development Services.
The program, commonly known as FIR, was designed as a pilot project in 2003 to streamline the process for reviewing plans and inspecting work by contractors who mostly focus on residential remodeling, additions to one- and two-family homes, and new construction or modification of accessory structures. Through FIR, contractors have one point of contact at the Bureau of Development Services who helps shepherd projects through plan reviews and inspections, including those of other city bureaus that issue permits and review plans related to development.
The program, which became a permanent part of BDS in 2006, has featured a lean staff of one Development Services Technician supporting seven senior building inspectors dedicated to serving the 480 contractors enrolled in FIR as of last spring.
In March 2020, when COVID-19 caused most city buildings to temporarily close, FIR work was paused for about two weeks as the Bureau of Development Services had to adjust to new working conditions that required an initial reprioritizing of permits that could be processed by a mostly teleworking workforce.
After the temporary hiatus, the FIR program got up and running quickly since we were already set up for remote permitting in early 2019, “and once word got out that FIR was still moving, applications exploded,” said Diane Parke, the director of the FIR program since 2018. Home remodeling and additions have not slowed down during the pandemic and economic recession. Contractors sharing their experience with the program helped bring 200 to 300 calls a month to the Bureau inquiring about enrollment in the FIR program.
By September, there was significant demand for the FIR program and due to a simultaneous hiring freeze in place because of the pandemic, more inspectors could not be hired. The FIR team consisted of the same seven residential inspectors who were now called on to assist more customers. To meet the demand, the broader residential inspection team at the Bureau lent “senior combo inspectors” – inspectors who could assist with inspection services for permitted projects for compliance with state building, plumbing, electrical and mechanical codes to help manage overflow of inspections, while FIR Inspectors continued to keep plan review moving forward.
With that extra assistance from current Bureau employees lending help to the FIR program, 80 contractors on the waiting list were admitted into the program and the waiting list was reset. As of mid-November, there were 565 residential contractors enrolled in the FIR program, with about 400 of those with active projects in the FIR pipeline. More than four dozen other contractors were on the waiting list as of Jan. 15.
“I’m proud of the way my team, without hesitation, just stepped up. No complaints, to keep homeowners projects moving forward and contractors in our community working,” said Parke.
Each new enrollee in the FIR program takes part in a 90-minute session to orient them to how the FIR program works, how to file permit requests and what to expect. “(FIR) has changed everything for our business and our clients’ experience,” said James Plumlee, CEO of Pluüm Construction, a home remodeling company and recent FIR member. “It has allowed us to become more efficient and get started on jobs sooner which gives us a quicker end date. It is allowed clients to make changes on the fly that would otherwise have possibly taken weeks to get approved.”
Once contractors get oriented to the more streamlined system for processing home remodels and additions, the workload for the FIR team is steady. “November and December have not slowed down,” said Parke in mid-November. As of mid-January, FIR contractors have work booked out through June.
Those who are interested in more information about the Bureau of Development Services’ Field Issuance Remodel program can visit the program’s website, email BDSFIRPERMITS@portlandoregon.gov or call 503-823-6691 on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m., except holidays.