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Oklahoma's fire permit approval process questioned

(KOKH)

Builders and inspectors are raising concerns about the fairness and efficiency of the state fire marshal's office approval process.

It is now faster for builders to get fire permits than it was a few years ago, but at what cost?

State fire marshal Robert Doke says his office provides approval for much of rural Oklahoma and cities that don't have their own fire code.

“It depends on the size and occupancy of the building how stringent those plans have to be,” Doke said.

The purpose of plan review is to make sure all the fire codes are met and to help ensure that the building and anyone inside have the best chance of survival if something bad happens.

“If 80 percent of any type plan that came into the agency was 100 percent compliant...our plan review turn around would be 8-10 days,” Doke said.

That's not the case, according to Doke’s office, 95% of all plans submitted have some sort of minor flaw. Many of the flaws are accidental, but some mistakes come from builders trying to cut corner at the cost of safety.

Up until a few years ago, the fire marshal's office approved all the plans themselves. The three person staff saw the backlog and wait times grow and the salaries added up to more than $200,000, according to Doke.

“It could go up," said Doke, "we were bumping six months which is definitely unacceptable for customer. It's not good for the economy for the state of Oklahoma.”

The agency decided to outsource the plan approval. The contract required a qualified person to work at a rate of $50 per hour and capped the payout to $100,000 each year. Doke says wait times for contractors is now typically less than eight weeks.

However, the state only has one approved contract for this process, which leaves one private company responsible for approving plans and determining how fast or slow they are approved.

Craig Higley is a certified building inspector and consultant and says he along with many builders he works with are concerned about the arrangement.

“[The builders] talk about the timeframes first and foremost and that there is only one gentleman they can go through at the state fire marshal,” Higley told FOX 25. “And they have to either pay what they consider and expediting fee if they want to get that project through faster.”

Doke denies any claims that builders are asked to pay more to speed up the approval process. He said that is not a fee approved by his office.

“To the best of our knowledge that has not happened,” Doke said. “Now a builder may hire that same contractor who reviews for us to do that, but the contractor has separated that because it gives an appearance that maybe it is not proper.”

Doke said any additional fees charged to builders are the result of hiring the state’s only permit approval company as a separate consultant. In that arrangement, Doke said the accounts should be separate but he promised he would investigate any claims that is not happening.

Higley points out contractors who want to ensure their plans are up to code often hire consultants. He questions whether it is proper that the person charging the state to approve plans is the same person who would also be charging contractors consulting fees.

Could the system that exists now change? It is possible. Doke said he would be open to hiring additional companies to do permit approvals, but they would have to be qualified and abide by the $50 per hour fee rate, which might be much less than someone qualified to approve plans would charge on their own.

Higley wonders why the state is paying anyone to review plans at all. He believes a better approach would be allowing qualified consultants the ability to approve permits, which would give builders and architects more flexibility and more choice. Higley said his plan would not cost the state any money.

“All you need is someone who has the authority to have jurisdiction and [the Fire Marshal’s Office] can set it up any which way they need to as long as they control who's doing what and overseeing those individuals,” Higley said.

Higley believes the approval process can only speed up if more people are involved. He said getting accurate approvals done quickly will benefit the state's economy.

“The longer a project is delayed, obviously they are not going to meet deadlines for school times, prices for materials can go up in that time frame you could lose contractors who could start a project earlier,” Higley told FOX 25.

The Fire Marshal’s contracts are run through the Office of Management and Enterprise Services and Doke said he would welcome others to apply to approve permits. He said his main concern is ensuring building plans are approved accurately and quickly to provide for the safety of all Oklahomans.

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