AMPP Member Reflects on Champlain Towers Efforts: Part 3

Evetts participating in helicopter training circa 2019.

Part 1 | Part 2

Corrosion experts notice things most people miss. Whether one is situated on a bridge, a ship, or a lamppost, a little rust may be overlooked, but a corrosion professional sees the cause or imminent damage of that rust.

In this three-part series, Byron Evetts provides his perspective on the Champlain Towers South recovery effort and wreckage in the days after the devastating collapse.

Life Safety Issues and Meeting Resistance When a Shutdown is Necessary

“I’ve experienced some resistance from cheap owners who think they can beat the system,” says Byron Evetts. “I won’t go back to these owners because they have put off necessary repairs for too long by using short-term band-aid fixes. They’ve been doing unpermitted and inadequate restoration; they’ve been doing cosmetic repairs on structural elements, and now they’re too far behind.”

“When I look at some of these buildings, it’s like an emergency medical situation that we’re too late to help. I’ve got to focus on the 80 to 90% of the structures that I can add value to and save. The other 10 to 20% are the mortally wounded patients that I just can’t help. I must go to buildings that I know I can help. When a building owner waits too long, the building may decay to the point where repairs are no longer an option.”

A life safety issue that Evetts recently encountered happened at a site where a building’s columns were severely damaged and corroded, possibly due to vehicle impact. The situation occurred at a cantilevered set of apartment buildings, so he and his team were able to shore it up and didn’t need to evacuate the buildings. “When it gets bad enough to evacuate residents, there’s a chance there is no longer any economic incentive to completely restore the building,” he says.

Evetts discussed the extent to which corrosion damage will accelerate in coastal Florida. “Once we have fully experienced the effects of corrosion here in Florida—cracking and spalling and things like that—it means that essentially there has been direct contact with a marine or coastal environment, and the corrosion damage will double every year or two. There’s only so much marine exposure that a building can take. The designers of the Champlain Towers buildings may not have done enough to prevent corrosion damage.”

“Whether we are talking about a steel or concrete structure, you can easily get to catastrophic or economic failure. Which means you’d need to remove the interior and take all the windows out of the fenestrations, among other repairs, and then you’re displacing the residents. At this point, you start considering tearing down and replacing the building. Bad design decisions like the ones we’ve discussed throughout this interview, made by building owners or condo boards, can turn people’s lives upside down.”

Evetts concludes, “If the market doesn’t stay on top of corrosion, corrosion-related failures are going to continue, and they may be the entire reason for a disaster or a contributor to one. It is unlikely that the Champlain Towers collapse will have been solely caused by corrosion; it might be multiple issues at fault…borderline design, substandard material, corrosion, or something else, and more than likely those factors all contributed to the collapse.”

Concrete Corrosion Beyond Florida

“I’ve worked on corrosion issues all over the world in coastal, very corrosive environments from Malaysia to Senegal, Aruba to Alaska,” says Evetts. “Most of my company’s work is in Florida and the Southeast now, but we have a global presence. From what I’ve seen, every third-world country is in the same, if not worse, shape than Florida. That’s not a club you want to be a part of, but every temperate, coastal state has a corrosion problem.”

“In any state where they salt the roads, and in any place where you have a marine environment, there is increased corrosion risk. These are places where you’re going to find significant corrosion problems. The way to fix a problem that’s attacking your most important capital investment is not just to throw money at it, but to carefully hire qualified contractors and engineers, pros who know the ICRI and forthcoming AMPP standards.”

Evetts explains, “Concrete is the most popular construction material in the world…I believe there’s one metric ton of reinforced concrete for every person on earth. You want to have someone with real concrete corrosion expertise involved in your inspection or repairs.”

“Additionally, building restoration and preservation and building recycling are all very important, because we generate about one ton of CO2 [carbon dioxide] to create one ton of concrete. This level of consumption can’t be good for the environment. We need to do what we can to preserve the materials we’ve got.”

Heeding the Threat of Another Surfside

“Since June, building evacuations in South Florida have been driven, not by a landlord, but by an authority with jurisdiction that says to ‘get these people out and get them safe,’” says Evetts. There have been buildings that haven’t quite been ‘red tagged’ for non-occupancy, but the owners have been cited for lack of maintenance, he says.

Evetts discusses the potential tightening of Florida’s building codes and the possibility of new inspection laws. “I’m hearing more about 10-year inspections from discussions driven by building officials who don’t want to stand at the base of a pile one day and ask, ‘Why didn’t I make that call sooner?’ Insurance companies now have much more influence in the Florida building code than ever before. In the past, the state’s building code was led by builders.”

He remembers one iteration of the building codes after Hurricane Andrew, when he and others were trying to develop a unified Florida building code, but it was fought by the construction industry because it was going to raise the cost of a house by one to two percent.

“When I hear numbers like that, I laugh when they say it’ll force 10% of the homebuyers out of the market,” Evetts says. “Going forward, there will be much greater influence from the insurance companies that bear the brunt of deficient housing; specifically, they’re going to have a lot of influence on new inspection laws. And these new laws probably won’t be fought by certain lobbies because it means more money flowing into the construction industry. I don’t think there will be too much pushback because of additional costs arising from new inspection laws that surround restoring or replacing buildings. Unfortunately, the people in lower financial demographics will suffer the most when these changes happen.”

Applying Professional Skills to the Volunteer Experience

Evetts believes that there is always a need for any kind of specialized skillset in the search and rescue world. “Approximately 80 to 90% of US&R [Urban Search & Rescue] slots are filled by fire service and emergency personnel,” he notes, “but there is also uptraining for specializations. There are civilian positions, too—communications specialists, doctors, and engineers. No matter what the position is, it comes with a great deal of responsibility.”

“In Florida some of the structure specialists pushed very hard to get us ‘administrative immunity,’” he explains. “That change happened just before Surfside. A law was passed saying that whether there’s an error or perceived error, the Structure Specialists are held harmless. That was a big change. On our task force, Structure Specialists were finally able to negotiate a professional service agreement with the city or county. I think across the state of Florida now, we can’t have our license yanked or be sued, unless we’re doing something really stupid.”

“The US&R task force generally has a professional service agreement with the volunteer, so we are going to see the opportunity for us to be back filled,” Evetts says. “We’ve had a lot of attrition in our program over the past 10 years, and Florida was, without a doubt, the leader in the US&R Structures Specialist world. We had about 25 structure specialists at one point. At least now when a structure specialist goes out for a five-, six-, or even a 24-hour day where they’re awake for 16 to 18 hours and trying to rest for six to eight hours—we have a professional service agreement to cover lost wages. That’s in line with the FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] model where this type of compensation was a given.”

Evetts says that the mix-up that Florida and other states needs to work on now is that each task force does things differently, and they are not unified. Evetts’ US&R retirement ceremony in January 2022. Evetts is pictured front, center (in shorts).

The End of a 25-Year Commitment

“Because I moved from a FEMA team to Central Florida, I joined the local volunteer fire department, which requires a commitment of over 200 hours a year,” Evetts says. “That contributes to your US&R training because there are a lot of crossover classes, such as technical ropes, trench awareness, hazmat awareness, and first aid, etc. Together those add up to about 500 to 600 hours in a career.”

Evetts explains that to serve as a US&R Structures Specialist, after five years’ Professional Engineering experience in the field, the first and second training classes are only 40 hours. “But in a big hurricane season, I once spent 15 days in the field,” he remembers. “These are austere, hard-working, and very, tough days. Overall, I have 100 days in the field, plus a lot of time teaching classes. Through my US&R work I easily have 1,000 hours of training.”

Before Surfside, it had never crossed Evetts’ mind to end his search and rescue career. He was completely entrenched in his volunteer work, having spent so much time in high-tech training and every educational opportunity available, and he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to each new young rescuer that joined his team.

“I have great memories of being in and out of helicopters and boats, rappelling down buildings, breaking rocks with my buddies, and sitting on busted toilets out in the middle of a field after a hurricane,” he recalls. “There was a lot of stress involved, a lot of dark comedy. You would never like finding someone who made the wrong decision to ride out a hurricane, but they were out there, and we had to zip them into a body bag. After Surfside, I knew I was never doing that again. It was time to pass on my gear to the younger volunteers. I put all of that behind me, set my jacket down, threw my helmet on it, and haven’t looked back.”

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