Why even the state’s smallest fix-its are facing big delays

Last week, Always Investigating exposed the latest major airport project to hit a snag: a backup power plant coming in over budget and years late.

But what about the small stuff that also needs fixing? Those face delays too.

Always Investigating asked what it will take to get basic airport repairs done faster, and found out how tasks are handled at other large state facilities lots of people use.

Airport management tells us the red tape that plagues their big projects affects the minor repairs too, and that they’re severely short-staffed. We found other agencies face the same challenges for their buildings, but have been able to make some overhauls that ease the huge problem of keeping things in ship-shape.

Hawaii’s largest airport has been a construction zone for years under a modernization project that will go on through 2020. Add in sometimes big stretches between when things break and their eventual fix, and it has many locals and visitors wondering why do things look so bad for so long? Many even take to social media to lambaste it and rate the airport not so hot.

We asked the Department of Transportation why things at the airports can take a long time to fix.

“Part of it is we have a lack of staffing and resources,” said Jeff Chang, engineering manager for the DOT Airports Division. “Right now, we have a lot of vacancies. I think it’s on the order of 10 percent.”

Chang says they face budget hoops and layers of coordination similar to the steps that back up their big projects too.

“Every dollar we spend has to get legislative approval,” Chang said. “It’s not down to they’re approving a certain part, but it’s down to a budget for spare parts, say, for restrooms or certain parts of the airport.”

Hiring, contracting, even buying spare parts with less red tape are among the reasons the DOT advocated for the formation of an airport authority to help projects big and small move quicker, but lawmakers did not pass it this session.

We asked for the airport division’s work order lists to get a sense of what takes the longest, and how the work flow goes from a reported breakage to a fix. They’re compiling the in-house lists, but meanwhile, they did send us contractual maintenance repairs they undertake with third-party providers when all sorts of different things break.

Click here to view the Airports Division’s maintenance projects and contractor list.

“Many of the smaller maintenance projects are submitted and fixed within a day,” said DOT spokesman Tim Sakahara. “For example, the repair project relating to the (walkway water intrusion) photo KHON is using in its graphics was completed in less than a day.”

Photo: Christopher Stevens

We asked, what can be done within the constraints of the current system to make a difference, so locals and visitors don’t have to see some of the other things broken for longer periods of time?

“We should be more attentive to it, but it comes back to having the resources. We can try to work more efficiently. We try to do what we can with what we have. It’s really difficult and it’s a challenge,” Chang said. “But what we try to do in terms of engineering, there are some technological resources — computers, work flow, that kind of thing — processing the paper electronically. We can try to modernize that as much as we can. That’s something that’s in our control.”

University of Hawaii

We wanted to know if other public facilities face the same problems. First stop, the University of Hawaii.

A few years back, we found a bunch of emergency call boxes inoperable for months, a slow work order process partially blamed at the time. We found out a lot has improved thanks to wider use of an online work-order submission and tracking system that costs less than $100,000 a year for the entire UH system statewide.

“I think it definitely helped us organize our work, so the organizing of the work helped us speed up response time and be a little more efficient,” said Blake Araki, director of UH Manoa Operations and Facilities.

Professors and staff can log right on and report what’s broken or bugging them. Out of 18,334 work orders on the Manoa campus alone since last January, health and safety ones are addressed within days. Four in 10 got wrapped up within a week, and 73 percent were checked off in four weeks. Just seven percent were still open.

Click here to view all work orders between January 2016 and March 2017.

“We rely heavily on our supervisors, the shop supervisors, to identify priorities, and we definitely want to take health and safety issues first, issues that affect students and classes,” Araki said, “and then the lower priorities would be just simple things like painting.”

Always Investigating asked, what can still be improved?

“Definitely, we want to be as quick as possible, and we want to reduce our work order over so many weeks,” Araki said. “Some orders take longer, but in general, if we can respond within a week, fix it within a week, that would be ideal.”

They’re finding quicker fixes and renovations boost morale for both students and staff, who show their care in turn when something is newer or kept a bit nicer.

Department of Education

We checked on the fix-it lists at the Department of Education too. We found more than 1,500 work orders are backlogged, but they take in 600-plus work orders a week. They have a target of no more than a few weeks’ lag time, worst case.

The DOE also has an online system like the university. Teachers can’t submit directly, but principals and office staff log in and often can get to their emergency fixes within hours. In a recent spot-checked week, all 57 second-priority “T-Calls” – urgent but not emergencies – were fixed within about 17 hours.

“It’s allowed for a lot more clarity in our performance. Things rise to our attention a lot faster,” explained Duane Kashiwai, administrator of DOE Public Works. “A backlog will always exist because we always need to fix stuff. We can bring the backlog down to zero and the next day something will break and it goes back to 1.”

Always Investigating got all the work order lists from every island’s largest elementary, middle, and high schools and found relatively quick fixes across the board.

Click on the following to view work order lists spanning Jan. 1 through Apr. 21, 2017 from the largest high school, middle school, and elementary school on each island (Oahu, Hawaii Island, Maui, and Kauai):

Oahu

Hawaii Island

Maui

Kauai

We showed our findings to the head of the teachers union.

“I was impressed with how fast they get things done,” said HSTA president Corey Rosenlee. “Sometimes you get the impression that things take forever.”

But there is a disparity in how quickly Oahu and urban schools get tended to, compared to rural sites.

“The main concern we have right now is getting people into positions,” Kashiwai said. “On Oahu, it’s not as bad an issue.”

Besides geography, we also spotted differences depending on the age of buildings. Newer schools like Mililani Middle had relatively short lists, whereas really old campuses like August Ahrens Elementary had many more ongoing problems.

“August Ahrens, it’s a school that’s 50-60 years old. That’s a lot of stuff,” Kashiwai said. “Every system has a life expectancy, and the older a school is, the more stuff reaches the end of its useful life.”

“When you get put into a classroom and it has an environment that is conducive to learning,” Rosenlee said of the newer schools and buildings, “it makes it easier for a student to focus and feel that they are valued.”

Short of tearing down and starting over, we’ll watch if the DOE can make even faster fix-its on older schools and the neighbor island campuses, and we’ll track fix-it turnaround times at the airports to see if that makes a change for the better.

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