- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 27, 2012

From floods in Florida to mudslides in California, Ronald Houston inspected thousands of battered homes during his career in the disaster business, becoming one of the top earners for a local joint venture that gets paid lots of money in the wake of powerful storms such as Sandy.

But as a Federal Emergency Management Agency inspector, Mr. Houston didn’t actually work for FEMA. In fact, the Virginia-based contractor that oversaw his housing inspections has insisted that neither he nor thousands like him are really even employees, records show.

Instead, in a long-held industry tradition, the people most responsible for gathering the information needed to make important decisions about who gets federal disaster aid and who doesn’t are more like temporary hired guns.

These on-call independent contractors, some with decades of experience and others with little or none at all, are sent out after a few days of coursework and some online testing to inspect damaged homes just as soon as the president declares a federal disaster.

Based in an office building in Fairfax, the Partnership for Response and Recovery LLP, which manages the many federal disaster inspections, won a nearly five-year, $750 million contract in 2007 from FEMA. The partnership, in turn, hires inspectors and pays them a fixed fee for each house they inspect. Thousands have been deployed in recent weeks to parts of New Jersey, New York and other states slammed by Superstorm Sandy last month.

Inspectors have an incentive to work fast: They get paid $57.50 per inspection in most cases. The inspections usually last about a half-hour to 45 minutes.

Anyone with experience in housing construction trades, real estate, appraisal or other areas can apply to be an inspector, but there is no telling whether the one who shows up at a storm survivor’s door has decades of experience or whether it’s his or her first time in the field.

“By the way, don’t feel compelled to tell the applicant it’s your first inspection — let’s keep that between us!” an “online preview” section of the partnership advises would-be inspectors.

Asked why the company tells inspectors not to tell applicants that they are new to the job, Molly Wagner, a spokeswoman, said the preview is meant to attract people into training classes.

“The intention is also to put new inspectors at ease and help them feel confident in their abilities so that if they become an inspector, they would also help the applicant feel comfortable,” she said.

Lawsuit settlement

More than 400,000 people from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island have applied for disaster aid from FEMA, which has approved $782 million in payments, according to an agency statement earlier this month.

Inspectors enter information into hand-held computers. FEMA uses the data to decide how much, if any, disaster money applicants should receive.

Many inspectors find the business isn’t for them and quit, but others make it a living and follow disasters across the country. Mr. Houston, for instance, made nearly $120,000 in 2005, according to records in a class-action lawsuit he and other inspectors filed against the partnership and other entities concerning overtime pay. Mr. Houston could not be reached for comment.

The case was settled for what Mr. Houston’s attorney told The Washington Times on Tuesday was a “modest amount,” but not before hundreds of pages of legal motions and depositions were filed in the case.

Taken together, the court documents in Mr. Houston’s case provide a detailed look at the federal disaster inspection process well beyond what FEMA officials describe in news releases announcing the deployment of thousands of FEMA inspectors anytime disaster strikes.

‘Blitz’ training

In one court document, an official for the partnership said the highest earning of its 2,897 independent housing inspectors in 2005 made more than $182,000, and 20 earned at least $100,000.

Another official, Douglas Frost, identified in court records as the partnership’s project director, described the training that inspectors undergo as “an eight-hour kind of blitz training,” according to a deposition he gave in the Houston case.

“One of the things that is kind of unique about this contract is that the level of capability, the abilities of these inspectors varies from people that are, you know, just getting their feet wet to people who have done this for who knows — 20, 25 years,” Mr. Frost said in the deposition.

“And there is a lot of initial review assistance that we provide the new inspectors. They are often not able to complete an inspection to the level of quality that FEMA requires of (the partnership) and that we then require of the independent contractors,” he said.

“So we spend some extra time assisting them with some of the areas where we’ve identified they may have some deficiencies and some of them are very deficient, and some of them just don’t quite get it. And these folks generally usually on their own admission figure out that I wasn’t cut out for this, and they request to be sent home.”

On the company’s website, the partnership has advice for inspectors feeling unsure of themselves: “It’s completely normal for inspectors to feel nervous or ‘not ready’ for their first inspection — the best thing is to dive right in. Just give it your best shot, and take a notebook with you to make notes about questions and uncertainties you have.”

Mr. Frost said the partnership expects inspectors to perform about 56 inspections per week and commit up to 30 days, though he said that is not a requirement.

“And sadly, a lot of these folks come up with reasons they have to go home a week into it,” he said. Some work out of their cars and others prove “quite adaptive” and bring their own mobile homes into disaster areas, he said.

Background check issues

Ms. Wagner, the spokeswoman, said the partnership has a core cadre of inspectors and hires only when needed.

“Even our seasoned inspectors take a refresher course,” she said, adding that the training involves two to three days of coursework. Much of the training involves how to use government software to send information to FEMA, and both the partnership and FEMA provide quality reviews of inspections, she said.

FEMA, which did not comment for this article, expects inspectors to inspect a home within three days, but the federal agency “doesn’t care how many people we put out in the field as long as we meet the three-day turnaround,” Mr. Frost said.

Inspectors also must undergo FBI background checks. The company used to be able to hire private contractors to conduct the checks, but now the FBI performs clearances, which Mr. Frost said in 2008 had reduced the number of inspectors the partnership could deploy.

Ms. Wagner said the background check process “does present challenges” and that FEMA is working with contractors to improve things.