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Norwich continues building inspections with COVID-19 distance protections

Norwich — Three weeks after Dan Coley was appointed the city’s new building official, the entire operation of his office suddenly changed, as the COVID-19 emergency first shuttered city offices and required staff to work mostly remotely.

The city soon set up a still-evolving plan of online applications processing, video inspections and solitary in-person inspections to maintain safe distances.

“Things are always changing,” Coley said earlier this week.

Coley, 48, of Preston, who grew up in Norwich in his family’s construction business, succeeded longtime Norwich Building Official and Director of Inspections James Troeger on Feb. 24.

By March 16, City Manager John Salomone had ordered most city offices closed to the public or with limited access by appointments and only emergency inspections.

Coley worked with City Planner Deanna Rhodes, who heads the Department of Planning and Neighborhood Services and with the city’s technology staff to create the department’s remote inspections capabilities.

Some of those new protocols will be permanent, Coley said, including online permit applications — eliminating handwritten scrawls in tiny boxes on paper forms — and at least some ability to do remote video inspections.

Remote video inspections are not ideal, Coley said, because some aspects require inspectors to put their hands on the work or closely examine elements, such as electrical connections and poured foundations. But when normal city operations resume, video inspections could be used for minor corrections of specific items to close out a project and issue a certificate of occupancy.

The office is currently short-staffed, with just Coley and Assistant Building Official Christian Case doing building permit reviews and inspections. The two men alternate going to the office at 23 Union St. at the start of the day to get any paperwork and sort out the day’s activities. Phone messages and emails are forwarded to their cellphones, and their calendars are on their city computer tablets and mobile devices.

“We have had to pick and choose what we can do for inspections,” Coley said. “We haven’t told anybody ‘no’ yet. We’re being very creative. We’re trying to follow the rules the government set forth.”

He said the remote inspections are working “really well.” Contractors or homeowners can use FaceTime or other video connection to contact the inspectors, who will direct the person to move the device to show the work being done. Inspectors might ask to measure how deep wiring was installed inside a wall or the thickness of insulation. Contractors can use electrical outlet testers to show that they are working.

Still photos can be sent to inspectors ahead of time to familiarize them with the work being done.

For in-person inspections, Coley said, inspectors are scheduling times when contractors or homeowners are not home. They might provide a combination code to a key box to enter the building. Outdoor inspections of foundations and decks can be done while keeping social distancing or when contractors are not there, Coley said. Inspectors don masks and gloves and use hand sanitizer afterward.

The state building official’s office has been in contact with cities and towns during the coronavirus emergency, and towns are sharing plans. Norwich used the remote inspections process worked out by West Hartford as its model.

“We’re still working on communication,” Coley said. “When we go into a place, when they’re not there, we must send an email report and pictures of things that need to be corrected.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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