Ethical Dilemmas: Case Studies

Case 99-1: Professor and Research Funding

The following is a summary of visitor responses and comments on the case study presented on the Web site between April and June, 1999. It is intended to be a factual portrayal of trends and individual comments without editorial input from EERI staff.

Review The Situation:

Dr. Smith, a public administration professor at State University, has an ongoing research grant from a state agency to investigate determinants of effective emergency response at the state and local levels. The study also involves response coordination with federal agencies.

Immediately after a damaging US earthquake, he sends a research team into the field to observe the activities of the various governmental agencies, including the coordination of support resources, the sharing of information, and the process of decision making. The team observes a number of actions that do not follow previously developed disaster response plans. In general, these actions seem ineffective on the part of the funding agency.

It becomes apparent to administrators from the agency that Dr. Smith’s team will develop a report that is critical of their operations. The administrators demand that Dr. Smith discontinue his research on this event and not publish his findings.

Dr. Smith considers this an issue of academic freedom. However, he also realizes that his department and many of his students depend on the continued grant money for this and other related projects from the state agency.

Assuming Dr. Smith will discuss the situation with other members of his department before proceeding, what actions should he consider?

Response Summary:

The respondents’ comments indicated that central to this case was the dilemma involving three main issues: 1) the contractor/client relationship, 2) public safety, 3) the need to maintain funding for this or future projects.

The suggested actions depended largely on the readers’ own perceptions of the case. If the agency’s actions truly posed (and presumably would pose again in the future) a threat to public safety, then the professor would have an obligation to present the facts. If the actions were substandard, but not necessarily dangerous, then the professor should present the report in a positive tone, acceptable to the agency, so that meaningful improvements could be made while retaining the client relationship.

Most recommended actions involved continuing discussions with the agency. A large number of readers agreed that the primary obligation of both stakeholders is to determine if there is a risk to public safety, and if so, find the best means for remedying the situation.

Recommended Actions:

Readers were asked to rate several possible actions – considering the interests of all stakeholders – based on the following scale. The actions are listed in no particular order, and the rating for each action is the average of the ratings gathered.

5 — Strongly Agree 4 — Agree 3 — Neutral 2 — Disagree 1 — Strongly Disagree

  1. Dr. Smith should comply with the request of the funding agency to terminate the study. Average Rating: 1.6
  2. Dr. Smith should reconsider and "soften" the results of the study. Major deficiencies could be represented in a less critical manner. The facts of the study could be represented in a more positive tone, focusing on areas where "improvement" could be made. In his opinion, the study would not be accurate, but would be palatable to both sides. Average Rating: 3.0
  3. Dr. Smith should consider submitting the report to the agency and allowing them to edit and/or delete portions of the results prior to publication. Average Rating: 1.0
  4. Dr. Smith should go to his contact at the agency to express his outrage over this violation of research "ethics" and attempt to reverse the agency’s decision. Average Rating: 2.9
  5. Dr. Smith should go to his contact at the agency and attempt to find a compromise solution in which the results of the study can be used to improve the agency's performance whether or not the report is eventually published. Average Rating: 4.2
  6. Dr. Smith should complete and publish the critical report regardless of the funding ramifications. Average Rating: 3.1

Readers were asked what additional information would have put them in a better position to pick an alternative.

Based on the readers’ comments, the following is a listing (in no particular order) of relevant information that would have helped Dr. Smith make a better decision:

  1. Information on the reasoning behind the agencies actions at the time. Did the disaster require alternative actions beyond the scope of the response plan? Were individuals rather than the entire agency acting contrary to the plan?
  2. A general idea of the magnitude of the problems uncovered. For example, did the agency’s actions have consequences or omissions that could have threatened the safety of individuals or hindered the response process?
  3. Information on the contract agreement between the professor and the agency.

Readers were then asked to offer a suggested course of action for the professor. The following is a brief summary of the suggestions. As is the nature of ethical dilemmas, there is no right or wrong answer, and many courses of action could be considered equally valid depending on individual values and/or interpretation of events.

Respondents suggested a large range of actions, all of which fit into four broad categories.

  1. Discuss situation and possible solutions with the funding agency. This could help clear up misunderstandings about the reasoning behind the agencies response. Also, a discussion could focus on promoting an interest on the agency’s part to improve.
  2. Publish the report information is a positive tone (similar to action "b"). Use the report for improvements rather than focusing on criticisms of the response. Perhaps the facts could be presented in general terms without referring to the specific event and without making any interpretations.
  3. Prepare a confidential critique of the response that the agency could use to make internal improvements.
  4. If the agency’s response was truly detrimental to the emergency situation, then Dr. Smith should publish a factual but fair report that could put pressure on the agency to improve.

Comments on Questions for Further Thought:

Finally, readers were asked to respond to the following:

Does it make a difference that this is a situation in academia rather than a professional client relationship? Is there a notion of academic freedom that would not necessarily exist in the professional disciplines?

The comments were mixed, with a majority opinion that there should be no difference. These readers seemed to hint that central to this case is the contractor/client relationship, regardless of whether the contractor is an academic or professional.Another group of respondents stated that there is, in fact, a difference. Professionals serve a client and are therefore can be bound by this relationship, unless there is an overwhelming public safety concern. Whereas in a research project, the academician has certain freedoms to pursue research and report it in an open forum.However, many of the comments from respondents on both sides of this issue stated or implied that the same ethical dilemma would exist for both an academic and a professional: a dilemma involving the balance between three issues – the obligation to a client, the obligation (perceived or real) to protect public safety, and the need to retain funding for future work (whether public research or private contracts).

 

Case 99-2: Considering a Less-Than-Complete Seismic Upgrade

The following is a summary of visitor responses and comments on the case study presented on the Web site between April and June, 1999. It is intended to be a factual portrayal of trends and individual comments without editorial input from EERI staff.

Review The Situation:

Golden Years is a nonprofit charitable corporation that runs a home for the elderly. They are the only organization in the community that provides housing and services geared toward middle to low income senior citizens. The home is located in a region of the Midwest that has recently been subject to a much publicized study which indicated that the seismic hazard could be somewhat different from what was previously understood. The region is characterized as having the potential for severe, but very infrequent, earthquakes.

The director of Golden Years, has contracted ABC Engineers to provide a seismic assessment of their facility. While the organization is not required legally to do anything to the building, they are interested in determining whether they need to do anything to improve their seismic safety. After reviewing the building, the engineers conclude that a major rehabilitation is required to provide reasonable life safety protection for the building occupants. The estimated cost of the rehabilitation is $1 million. Upon hearing this, the director informs the engineers that they can only afford about $200,000, but they would like to do something to improve their situation.

What should ABC Engineers recommend?

Response Summary:

Respondents overwhelmingly agreed that a partial upgrade was preferred over doing nothing at all. However, the response was mixed with respect to designing a partial upgrade within the current budget or designing a full upgrade to be constructed in phases as funds become available.

The comments imply that central to this dilemma is the best use of available funds to provide the highest degree of safety. Most readers stated that the primary obligation of the engineer is to clearly present the seismic hazard, the risks associated with the building, and potential mitigation measures so that the owners could make an informed decision based on their own values.

It was noted several times that, since this upgrade is not required by statute, the engineer does not have an obligation to provide a minimum level of safety, but rather, is obligated to serve the desires of his client. Only a few readers felt that the engineer has a professional responsibility to provide a minimum level of safety. Where noted, the reason for this opinion was primarily due of the cost constraints.

No respondents advocated a "full upgrade or nothing" position by the engineers. It was, however, suggested by one respondent that any actions should consider the expected seismic hazard (considering both seismicity and structural deficiencies) compared to the risks to the elderly residents due to the impact of construction disturbances. This reader noted that having to temporarily relocate, etc., could be very disruptive to these residents.

Recommended Actions:

Readers were asked to rate several possible actions – considering the interests of all stakeholders – based on the following scale. The actions are listed in no particular order, and the rating for each action is the average of the ratings gathered.

5 — Strongly Agree 4 — Agree 3 — Neutral 2 — Disagree 1 — Strongly Disagree

  1. Suggest that Golden Years not spend any money on the building until they are able to afford the complete upgrade. In the meantime, ABC will not send them a written report. Average Rating: 1.5
  2. Suggest that the only solution for Golden Years is a complete upgrade and that ABC will have no part of any partial upgrade. ABC intends to send them a written report. Average Rating: 1.6
  3. Suggest that ABC be hired to design a complete structural upgrade but that they will do the documentation so that the work can be performed incrementally. ABC will advise Golden Years on which priorities they should concentrate on first with their $200,000. As additional funds become available, they can do more of the work until the complete upgrade is achieved. Average Rating: 4.2
  4. Suggest that ABC design the best fix possible for $200,000. Inform Golden Years that this will not be a compete upgrade and conceptually outline what could be done further if the funds were ever available. Average Rating: 4.1

Readers were asked what additional information would have put them in a better position to pick an alternative.

Based on the readers’ comments, the following is a listing of relevant information (in no particular order) that would have helped the engineer and their clients make a better decision:

  1. More detailed information on the nature of the building hazard and the probability of earthquake occurrence. Will the limited budget provide a meaningful improvement? Are there other hazards besides strong ground shaking (e.g. liquefaction) for which there would be no partial fix?
  2. Is there other maintenance work planned or needed? Is possible that some seismic work be done in conjunction with the maintenance work? This could provide either additional funding or cost savings.
  3. Information on the impacts of various upgrade schemes on the building occupants. For example, could the real disruption associated with relocating during construction be more difficult for the elderly residents than the potential earthquake hazards?
  4. More information on the possibility of future funding. Depending on the nature of the earthquake hazard and occurrence would it make more sense to put off the work until a more complete upgrade could be funded?

Readers were then asked to offer a suggested course of action for the engineers. The following is a brief summary of the suggestions. As is the nature of ethical dilemmas, there is no right or wrong answer, and many courses of action could be considered equally valid depending on individual values and/or interpretation of events.

  • No respondent explicitly recommended against the partial upgrade (actions "a" and "b" above). However, there was a fairly even distribution between the nature of the partial upgrade (actions "c" and "d"). In recommending action "d", one respondent noted that the funds spent on designing the future work could be spent on a better current upgrade. Others felt that it was important for the owners to have a complete upgrade designed, but have the work prioritized, so that it could be performed as additional funds become available.
  • While the suggested actions differed, many respondents noted that it is important for the engineers to be very clear with the clients about the expectations associated with any level of seismic upgrade. If a partial upgrade is to be performed, then the owners should be made aware of what is being improved and what risks remain.
  • Some stated that (for a voluntary upgrade) the engineer’s role is not to determine the level of work, but rather, to give the client all the necessary information to make the decision that best meets their needs and constraints.

Comments on Questions for Further Thought:

Finally, readers were asked to respond to the following:

Does a structural engineer have a professional obligation to provide some minimum level of performance by, for example, mitigating all life-threatening hazards in a retrofit design? Or, is a partial upgrade design that minimizes the greatest hazards but may still result with significant life-safety hazards better than nothing at all?

In general, most readers agreed that a partial upgrade can be beneficial, especially in a case where there may be more frequent and less severe earthquakes.Many respondents stated that, in this case, the professional obligation is to present all of the information and options so that the client can make an informed decision. Rather than an obligation to provide a certain degree of safety, the engineer has an obligation to state clearly to the owners both the level of safety that can be expected and the risks that still remain as a result of an upgrade that they (the owners) have chosen.

Some stated that the engineer does have an obligation to design a retrofit to some minimum standard, while others said that the obligation depends on the specific circumstances (e.g. a governing code or ordinance).

Case 99-4: Evaluating Damage Following an Earthquake

The following is a summary of visitor responses and comments on the case study presented on the Web site between October 1999 and January 2000. It is intended to be a factual portrayal of trends and individual comments without editorial input from EERI staff.

Review The Situation:

Following a major earthquake, you are contacted by an adjuster representing Acme Insurance Company and asked to inspect a property damaged by the earthquake and prepare a report that includes repair recommendations. This is the adjuster’s first experience with an earthquake damage claim, so he is relying entirely upon you as an expert in earthquake engineering for guidance. Other than names, addresses, and phone numbers, the adjuster gives you no information or direction.

Your inspection of the property reveals moderate but readily repairable earthquake damage to the lateral load-resisting system. In addition, however, you discover what appears to be serious design or construction defects in the gravity system, although there is no indication of any distress associated with the defects.

A quick review of the building department file indicates that the building is about 40 years old. From prior experience with this vintage of structure, you are aware that significant retrofit of the lateral system is required to meet current life-safety standards. Doing a few simple checks, you also confirm your suspicions about defects in the gravity system, finding it has only about 70% of the strength required by current code.

What do you report to your client?

Response Summary:

A strong majority of the respondents agreed that all of the conditions should be reported and that the two main observations – the earthquake damage and the pre-existing conditions – should be reported separately. The facts should be presented objectively so that the client can make an informed decision.

Where the responses differed was in how to present the pre-existing conditions. Some felt that the engineer should inform the insurer and/or building owner independently of the evaluation report. The client had requested only an earthquake damage assessment.

Others wrote that all of the safety concerns should be included in the evaluation report. The engineer should go beyond the narrow focus of the earthquake evaluation in order to inform the concerned parties of the potential safety issues.

Recommended Actions:

Readers were asked to rate several possible actions – considering the interests of all stakeholders – based on the following scale. The actions are listed in no particular order, and the rating for each action is the average of the ratings gathered.

5 — Strongly Agree 4 — Agree 3 — Neutral 2 — Disagree 1 — Strongly Disagree

  1. You report only the earthquake damage, as that was all you were hired to do. Average Rating: 1.9
  2. You report only the earthquake damage, but suggest a detailed review of the capacity of the gravity system. Average Rating: 3.2
  3. You report all your observations clearly distinguishing between earthquake damage and as-built defects. Average Rating: 4.2
  4. You report all your observations without distinguishing between earthquake damage and as-built defects – determining causation is the insurance adjuster’s job. Average Rating: 2.0
  5. You report both earthquake damage and as-built defects, but purposely word your report so that both appear to be earthquake damage with the intent that all repairs would be covered by the insurance policy. Average Rating: 1.8
  6. For those components of the lateral system damaged by the earthquake, you provide recommendations to restore the damaged components to their original capacity. Average Rating: 3.4
  7. Rather than merely repairing the existing lateral system, you recommend a complete upgrade because repair alone will leave the building in a deficient condition relative to current standards. Average Rating: 3.2
  8. You provide a detailed scope of work necessary to restore the original capacity of the lateral system but also recommend that an upgrade of the lateral system be considered, independent of insurance coverage. Average Rating: 4.3
  9. Before preparing your report, you call the adjuster and discuss the issue of repair versus upgrade and seek your client’s guidance based on insurance coverage. Average Rating: 3.7
  10. Being somewhat uncertain as to what the client expects by way of a report, before finalizing your report you send the adjuster a draft copy for review and comment. Average Rating: 4.0

Readers were asked what additional information would have put them in a better position to pick an alternative.

Based on the readers’ comments, the following is a listing (in no particular order) of relevant information that would have assisted in making a better decision:

  1. More information on defects in the gravity system including whether they are global or localized.
  2. Details on the construction and function of the building including size, structural system, and the chance for additional gravity loading.
  3. Details on the relationships with the client/owner/tenants, etc. For example, how approachable and how amenable to engineering recommendations is the insurer (client)? Is the client likely to inform the owner and would the owner inform the tenants as to the possible risks?

Readers were then asked to offer a suggested course of action for the engineer. The following is a brief summary of the suggestions. As is the nature of ethical dilemmas, there is no right or wrong answer, and many courses of action could be considered equally valid depending on individual values and/or interpretation of events.

Most of the respondents recommended one of two general courses of action.

One group responded that the engineer should "officially" report only the earthquake damage to the insurer, but should also attempt to inform either the insurer or the owner or a building official of the potential deficiencies. The engineer’s duty is to his/her client (in this case reporting damage from the recent earthquake), but he/she also ought to make the assessment of the pre-existing conditions available to concerned parties.

The other, slightly smaller group felt that the engineer should provide both the earthquake damage and pre-existing deficiencies in the "official" report. This seemed to reflect the opinion that the engineer has an obligation to report all risks associated with the building. Respondents in this group also felt that all of the information ought to be presented in order to assist all parties make informed decisions.

Comments on Questions for Further Thought:

Finally, readers were asked to respond to the following two questions:

Should engineers consider themselves as strong advocates for public safety and present earthquake damage findings in the manner most likely to yield insurance coverage for a full retrofit? Or, should engineers’ obligation to make truthful public statements supercede their interest in promoting public safety? Or, should engineers be strong advocates for their client’s interests?

Nearly all of the respondents shared the same general opinion, but with subtle differences.

One group can be described as favoring "objectivity over advocacy." These readers felt that the engineer should present all of the information in an honest manner (i.e. separating the earthquake damage from the pre-existing conditions) that will allow the responsible parties (in this case the insurer and the owner) decide how to proceed. Engineers should not dishonestly favor either party even if they have noble intentions.

The other group preferred the concepts of engineers as "advocates for public safety – and truthful." The engineer should prepare a truthful and objective report, but should not stop at that. In an open and honest manner, the engineer should encourage the concerned parties to investigate the potential pre-existing deficiencies. Supposing the building owner was interested in initiating a program of repair/strengthening work. Should you offer your services as engineer-of-record to the building owner given your detailed knowledge of the building gleaned from your extensive investigation? Or, should you, in fact, refuse the owner’s request to hire you as engineer-of-record, as a dual retention would create a conflict of interest? Or, can you work for both the owner and the insurance company, as your opinions are objective and independent of which client is paying your bill?Most respondents felt that the engineer should decline the work to avoid a conflict of interest, even if this conflict was only perceived.Others noted that the engineer could do both as long as the contractual obligation to the insurer was complete prior to the beginning of the upgrade project.

A very small group felt that there is no problem with the engineer working for both, provided both clients were aware of the situation and as long as the engineer makes a special effort at maintaining complete objectivity.

Case 99-3: Engineering Review for Prospective Buyer

The following is a summary of visitor responses and comments on the case study presented on the Web site between July and September, 1999. It is intended to be a factual portrayal of trends and individual comments without editorial input from EERI staff.

Review The Situation:

New Properties, Inc. is considering purchasing an apartment building located in a region of high seismicity. They are informed that the building had recently undergone a seismic rehabilitation, and they contract with ABC Engineers to review the work done for this upgrade and to assess the building in general. A senior structural engineer reviews the drawings and conducts a field inspection. He notes that the rehabilitation work was performed by Reasonable Engineering, a structural engineering firm known for its "competitive" fees and "liberal" designs. This competitor has recently been selected for several major projects that ABC Engineers had been pursuing.

The engineer finds that the other firm has selected a system that he believes is entirely inappropriate considering the characteristics of the building. The details of construction were clearly developed to minimize both the impact on the existing building and the construction costs. He believes that the rehabilitation not only fails to improve the seismic safety but may, in fact, have made it worse. In the event of moderate to severe ground shaking, the building continues to pose a significant threat to life. The engineer presents the situation to several principals in his firm, and they all concur with his assessment. The engineer summarizes this situation for his client in a letter report. Based on this information, New Properties decides not to purchase the building. They tell the engineer that they have no objection to his disclosing the results of the investigation to any other interested party.

How should ABC Engineers proceed?

Response Summary:

If the responses had a common theme, it would be this: It is important for ABC Engineers to keep the situation discrete and not jump to quick conclusions that could be damaging to the other engineering firm. Many readers stated or implied that public disclosure should only be used as a last resort.

The readers tended to describe two primary courses of action. First, both the building owner (different from ABC’s client) and Reasonable Engineering should have an opportunity to review the findings and discuss the situation with ABC Engineers. If an adequate conclusion can not be reached, a neutral third party should be engaged to provide an unbiased review of both the report and the retrofit design.

A small percentage of readers felt that ABC does not need to take any further action as they had fulfilled their obligations to their client. These readers raised concerns about initiating premature and potentially damaging claims regarding the prior upgrade work.

Possible Actions:

The following is list of possible actions that ABC Engineers could take. Rate these choices on the following scale based on what you think would be the best action considering the interests of all stakeholders. There is space for reader-suggested actions at the end.

5 — Strongly Agree 4 — Agree 3 — Neutral 2 — Disagree 1 — Strongly Disagree

  1. The firm could do nothing. They have completed the work as requested by their client and have no further obligations. Average Rating: 2.4
  2. The engineer could discuss the matter with a trusted associate or colleague in a different firm who may have a different perspective or opinion on the rehabilitation strategy. Average Rating: 3.7
  3. The engineer could discuss the matter with Reasonable Engineering or send them a copy of the report. Average Rating: 3.3
  4. The engineer could send the report to the apartment building owner and their real estate broker. Average Rating: 3.0
  5. The engineer could send the report to the local building official. Average Rating: 3.4
  6. The engineer could send the report to a local professional society for review by their members. Average Rating: 2.7
  7. The engineer could send the report to the Board of Registration for Professional Engineers for their review. Average Rating: 2.5
  8. The engineer could make their findings public through some form of the media. Average Rating: 1.6

Readers were asked what additional information would have put them in a better position to pick an alternative.

Based on the readers’ comments, the following is a listing (in no particular order) of relevant information that would have helped ABC Engineers make a better decision:

  1. Are there any relationships between the ABC and Reasonable Engineers that could have been utilized to facilitate a discrete discussion of the situation?
  2. More detailed information on the risk level associated with the building. E.G. is there imminent danger?
  3. What were the objectives and/or criteria for the prior upgrade? What were the owner’s expectations?

Readers were then asked to offer a suggested course of action for the engineer. The following is a brief summary of the suggestions. As is the nature of ethical dilemmas, there is no right or wrong answer, and many courses of action could be considered equally valid depending on individual values and/or interpretation of events

Most respondents suggested that ABC Engineers should follow up on the situation. A small number noted that no further action is required, but many suggested actions that imply that ABC does, in fact, have an ethical responsibility to at least inform the building owner of the situation.

Respondents suggested a large range of actions, most of which fit into four broad categories.

  1. From the beginning, it is important for ABC Engineers to be discrete and not jump to conclusions. Discussions with colleagues, the building owner, or other parties should be kept private and non-alarmist so that premature and potentially damaging claims are not made public before all the facts are in.
  2. The building owner should be informed of the situation and Reasonable Engineering should have an opportunity to review ABC’s findings and offer explanations and justifications for the design.
  3. A neutral third party engineer should be engaged to review the upgrade design and ABC’s findings. Several respondents noted that this was important to "ensure neutrality and demonstrate prudence." This third party could be the local regulatory agency.
  4. Only a small percentage of readers stated that ABC should take no further action. ABC had sufficiently served their client, and the readers indicated concern over raising potentially damaging allegations against the other engineer.

Comments on Questions for Further Thought:

Finally, readers were asked to respond to the following two questions:

Does a structural engineer have a professional obligation to disclose potential seismic risk? What steps should be taken to ensure that the engineer is not making a premature judgement? How far should an engineer go in attempting to disclose risk?

All readers who responded to this question indicated that the engineer does have a responsibility to disclose risk. About half of these narrowed their response to include that the primary obligation is to the engineers’ clients. A few stated that the obligation is only to raise concern over a potential problem and direct the building owner to pursue the nature of the risk. The standards for public disclosure are much tighter. Many respondents stated that public disclosure should only be used for situations involving imminent risk and where the engineers are completely confident in their understanding of the problem.Nearly all responses for the second part of this question indicate that some sort of review – from an internal review to discussions with colleagues at outside firms to an official peer review – should be made prior to disclosure.

Almost all responses for the third part contained the word "reasonable" or "judgment," and many readers indicated that the extent of disclosure depends largely on the level of risk.

Do building owners and/or tenants have a right to know about the potential risks associated with their building.

All readers who responded to this question indicated that owners and tenants do have such a right. A few responses added that the owners also have an obligation to inform their tenants of potential risks.

Case 00-1: Presentation on Earthquake Risk

The following is a summary of visitor responses and comments on the case study presented on the Web site between February and April 2000. It is intended to be a factual portrayal of trends and individual comments without editorial input from EERI staff.

Review The Situation:

Ronda Response is on the staff of a local office of emergency services. The jurisdiction encompasses a region of moderate seismic hazard, and therefore earthquake planning and response are an important part of the office.

One of Ms. Response’s key jobs is to make presentations on earthquake risk to day care centers, schools, and other similar facilities in the community. The presentations, which are a free service provided by the emergency services office, are generally tailored to the staff and faculty. They often include the probability of earthquakes, how earthquakes affect different kinds of buildings, and the kinds of steps that need to be taken in developing preparedness programs and emergency plans.

Upon arriving at a private school to make a presentation, Ms. Response realizes that the building in which she is meeting is an older, poorly constructed unreinforced masonry building. Although she is not a practicing structural engineer, she knows that such building types, if not properly strengthened, can pose serious hazards. In addition, she notes conditions (deteriorated mortar, an open front at an entrance atrium area, tall story heights, and several reentrant corners) that she thinks could be associated with below average performance.

The school administrators have requested that the presentation address preparedness issues (bracing bookshelves, storing emergency supplies, etc.), emergency contact numbers, names other organizations that can serve as resources, as well as talking to the staff about what students should do during an earthquake. There is to be no discussion of the expected performance of the school buildings.

However, during the presentation a staff member asks Ms. Response how she would expect the building to perform. This arouses the interest of many of the staff members, who are naturally curious about the building in which they spend much of their day.

What should Ms. Response do? (It should be noted that the local jurisdiction does not have any mandatory evaluation or strengthening provisions for unreinforced masonry buildings regardless of use.)

Response Summary:

The general tone of the response was that Ms. Response should notify the school administrators of the potential risk, but should be careful not to arouse undue panic with the staff. Since she is not professionally qualified to make an engineering evaluation of the building, she should recommend that one be made by experts. The appropriate avenue for this recommendation is with the administration, since they are ultimately responsible for the building.

At the same time, some readers felt that the building occupants (staff and students) should be made aware that there are potential hazards associated with that building type. However, when stating the risks, Ms. Response should be clear to note that she is not an "expert" and that a more detailed evaluation is recommended. Specific claims regarding the building are not warranted without an assessment by a qualified professional, but the occupants should be informed of the hazards in general.

Recommended Actions:

Readers were asked to rate several possible actions – considering the interests of all stakeholders – based on the following scale. The actions are listed in no particular order, and the rating for each action is the average of the ratings gathered.

5 — Strongly Agree 4 — Agree 3 — Neutral 2 — Disagree 1 — Strongly Disagree

  1. Talk about the performance of unreinforced masonry buildings in general, taking great care to soften the discussion of potential hazards, and do nothing else. Average Rating: 2.0 (min: 1,max: 4)
  2. Talk about the performance of unreinforced masonry buildings in general, discussing quite realistically the types of hazards associated with typical building, and do nothing else. Average Rating: 2.4 (min: 1,max: 5)
  3. Talk about the performance of unreinforced masonry buildings in general. Later, in a closed meeting with the building administrators, inform them that the building could be particularly vulnerable and recommend that a structural evaluation be undertaken. Average Rating: 4.4 (min: 1,max: 5)
  4. After discussing unreinforced masonry buildings in general, inform the staff that, in her opinion, the building is more vulnerable than the typical unreinforced masonry building. Recommend that they pressure the school administrators for a structural evaluation. Average Rating: 3.1 (min: 1,max: 5)
  5. Same as Action d), but provide more information that implies the nature of the hazard. For example, point out the areas of egress that may be most reliable and areas of the building to avoid, if possible. Average Rating: 2.8 (min: 1,max: 5)
  6. Same as Action d), but also suggest the staff relay this information to the parents of the children attending the school. Average Rating: 2.3 (min: 1,max: 5)
  7. Discuss performance in general, without providing much detail, and contact the local building official for advice. Average Rating: 3.2 (min: 1,max: 5)

Readers were asked what additional information would have put them in a better position to pick an alternative.

Based on the readers’ comments, the following is a listing (in no particular order) of relevant information that would have assisted in making a better decision:

  1. Details on the building’s design and construction and more information on the seismic hazard (expected magnitude and frequency of earthquakes).
  2. Details of Ms. Response’s background (education, engineering experience, etc.) and qualifications for making such judgments.
  3. Openness of the school administration to improving public safety. Relationships between the various stakeholders (teachers, administrators, staff, parents) and how well would they work together to improve the safety of the building.
  4. To what extent, if any, do public employees in this jurisdiction have a legal/contractual duty to report hazards.

Readers were then asked to offer a suggested course of action for the Ms. Response. The following is a brief summary of the suggestions. As is the nature of ethical dilemmas, there is no right or wrong answer, and many courses of action could be considered equally valid depending on individual values and/or interpretation of events.

A majority of the respondents suggested that Ms. Response should be careful not to cause premature panic, should contact the school administrators first, and should recommend a more detailed evaluation of the building by a building official or a structural engineer prior to making any comments regarding the particular building.

In general, these responses noted that Ms. Response does have an obligation to point out the potential hazards, but since she is not a professional structural engineer, she should refrain from making specific statements about the building. Many readers were very clear about this last point.

Some seemed to feel that, regardless of the specific degree of hazard, the building occupants have a right to know about the risks in general. Ms. Response should discuss this or at least ensure that the school administrators would discuss the risk with the staff and parents.

However, others felt that the risks should not be discussed with the staff and parents until more information was available. This group seemed to think that the building administrators should be given the first chance to respond to the situation. Comments on Questions for Further Thought:

Finally, readers were asked to respond to the following two questions:

Do you think occupants have a right to know about the safety of their buildings? Do "experts" have an obligation to discuss these issues?

Everyone who responded to this question agreed that yes, occupants do have a right to know. Some did not comment on the second part, but many felt that the experts do have some sort of obligation. Several people clarified their answers, stating that the experts should use care to use appropriate judgment when disclosing risks or that the disclosure should be made first to building owners rather than occupants.

Five years after the initial presentation Ms. Response knows that the school has done nothing to improve its building. Does she have any further official obligations? If so, then what are they?

A majority of readers agreed that Ms. Response should take action, including making reports to the building administrators and building department and attempting to validate the structural concerns. Several respondents noted that 5 years is too long for her to wait before taking further action.

A few respondents felt that, while she does not have an official obligation at this point, she should do her best to pursue action out of personal responsibility.

A small number stated that she has no further obligations.

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