By Franklin Fisher (Benning)October 1, 2019
FORT BENNING, Ga. -- A robust array of measures adopted a year ago at Fort Benning to curb lead-based paint hazards in a family housing area is showing steady progress, officials here said last week.
The measures have resulted in lead hazard risks being removed from a growing number of homes, and a good beginning on improving overall quality of housing service, they said. Corrective actions have included stringent new repair and inspection practices, hiring of more housing-related staff, and strong emphasis from top-level leadership on making housing service more efficient, transparent and responsive to residents.
Lead-based paint remediation in Army housing areas gained heightened impetus in summer 2018 after a news report that some homes on various Army installations, including Fort Benning, contained lead-based paint hazards, exposed children and others to the risk of lead poisoning, and that Army officials had allegedly failed to maintain proper oversight.
Members of Congress pressed for action, including a review of how the military handles lead-poisoning hazards.
Top Army leaders ordered installations Army-wide to take immediate action. These included extensive screening of homes built before 1978, and tests of tap water and soil to find and correct potential hazards. A 1978 federal law bans use of lead-based paint.
Key leaders at Fort Benning meanwhile moved swiftly too, and met on how to best fix the problems.
"It was quite clear that we needed to make sure that we had a plan going forward," said Keith R. Lovejoy, Housing Division chief with U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning,
"We went through different options and how we could attack it and break it down and get after what we thought we needed to get after," said Lovejoy.
In 2006, Fort Benning partnered with Clark Realty Capital to form Fort Benning Family Communities (FBFC), to maintain more than 4,000 homes for military families. FBFC in turn employs Michaels Management Services to handle day-to-day management of the homes, which it does through a company known as The Village of Benning.
Fort Benning's "historic" homes - all built before 1978 - contain some level of lead-based paint. Over time the paint may break off in chips or dust, which can harm health, especially that of young children and pregnant women.
First priority was finding chipping or exposed lead-based paint in the historic homes, and getting rid of it. And any homes with children age 6 or under would be first on the remediation list.
The aim was to attack those lead-based materials that were "exposed" - existing in places where children and others in the home might make physical contact with them. That typically includes windows, door frames and radiators.
Of Fort Benning's 493 historic homes, 300 had needed new windows to replace those with lead-based paint, a process that began several years before last year's news report. To date, 169 homes have received new windows, 40 homes receiving new windows within the past year. Dozens more homes are slated for window replacement.
Replacing windows in historic homes is an especially complex, time-consuming undertaking, officials said. No two historic homes are necessarily alike at Fort Benning, and a single house can have windows of varied shapes, measurements and other items of detail. A rapid mass-installation of one-size-fits-all windows was not an option, Lovejoy said.
Instead, each new window would have to be custom-made to precise specifications that meet exacting historic preservation requirements. That's made the process considerably slower and more painstaking than normal window replacement, the officials said, but window replacement continues and at high priority, they said.
But in addition to pursuing the first-priority goal of abating lead-based paint hazards and improving overall housing service, Fort Benning's top leader, Maj. Gen. Gary M. Brito, commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence here, saw a chance to improve the quality of the historic homes for years to come, officials said.
Don't just remove any exposed lead-based paint, Brito ordered, but slate the old homes for extensive renovation. That, with proper regular maintenance, would raise them to a level of quality that could last decades more.
The decision, to launch "extended scope" renovation, was a major step, said Col. Matthew Scalia, commander of USAG Fort Benning.
"It was," said Scalia, "a big decision by the commanding general to say, 'We have the opportunity, the house is vacant, and we're doing this extensive lead-based paint remediation. Let's do more. Let's repair the plumbing and the bathrooms. We're in the house. Let's get it done. Let's bring these up to the right standard for our families.'
"That, I think," said Scalia, "has been an important positive decision that families recognize and are appreciative of. They recognize, 'Okay, maybe there's not as many houses available now, but we're getting them right where they ought to be.'"
The renovations are "extensive" in scope, Lovejoy said, and may entail new floors, doors, windows, walls, roofing, bathrooms, plumbing, radiators and tubs, among other improvements.
"Inside this scope," said Lovejoy, "not only are the windows done now, but the doors are replaced, the external doors, all the eaves and soffits on the house. If the roof needs to be fixed at that time, it is. Floors are being done. Radiators are being pulled. While they're in the houses they're looking at asbestos, if there's any type of asbestos issues, and insulation. Those old radiators that are in the houses - 'cause that's the next, after the windows - that's the next thing that has lead-based paint," said Lovejoy.
"A bathroom upgrade's being done. Basements are being done also. All the trim in the basements is being taken out, and the lead-based paint doors. Those old metal big set tubs that are in the basements, those are being removed. New set tubs are being placed in. After all this happens, they get new HVAC systems, all the ducts are cleaned."
And all historic homes, whether slated for renovation or not, are now tested for whether water contains lead or other toxins, Lovejoy said.
A final "wipe test" is done for lead hazards and a house will be cleared for occupancy only if no hazard is found, Lovejoy said.
Since the extended-scope renovations began, workers have completed 39 homes, others are currently under such renovation, and Fort Benning plans the same renovation for a few hundred more historic homes over time.
Along with finding and removing exposed lead in its historic homes, the game plan called for other major actions, including: a campaign to inform residents about lead hazards; improving maintenance and inspection practices; working to improve the command's awareness of residents' concerns; responding to them quickly; and otherwise gaining residents' trust in Fort Benning by showing a readiness and ability to give them safe and well-maintained housing.
Fort Benning mounted an education campaign to inform residents about the various forms of potential lead hazards, including lead-based paint. The campaign included a video on those hazards, and residents were required to sign a statement acknowledging they'd received the instruction.
The Villages of Benning hired eight more maintenance workers, an environmental inspector, a resident engagement specialist, a new property manager who is also an experienced customer service expert, and also hired four additional contracting firms that are certified to do lead-based paint work. The garrison itself hired four housing inspectors.
"So they do nothing but inspect homes, twenty-four-seven," Lovejoy said of the inspectors.
Staff members from The Villages of Benning and the garrison's Housing Office received training in how to identify lead-based paint hazards.
And the work crews and inspectors alike are working longer hours and weekends, so that Fort Benning's housing improvement effort maintains momentum, Lovejoy said.
In setting up a rigorous, no-nonsense system of maintenance and inspections, Fort Benning officials have trained their sights on responding quickly to residents' calls for help, making thorough repairs without delay, and having inspectors follow-up to make sure work gets done properly.
Other actions include follow-up inspections of housing within 90 days of a family's moving in; making available to residents housing work orders online; preventive maintenance inspections.
Fort Benning has also set up a 24-hour housing hotline, and drafted a chart listing three sources for housing help: "Engage Property Management," "Notify Unit Chain of Command," and "Contact Garrison," and is online at: https://www.benning.army.mil/Garrison/Housing/.
Officials now hold a weekly meeting to track progress of the remediation push and fine-tune the drive to ensure quality service.
And Fort Benning now holds quarterly housing-related town hall meetings open to community members.
Scalia believes Fort Benning is off to a good start with its regimen of corrective measures.
Hiring additional contractors has been a major help in getting houses ready for hazard-free occupancy, he said.
"The large increase in the number of contractors to do that work, to reduce the time a house is sitting vacant, to reduce the wait time for residents, that I think has been a huge success," he said.
The corrective measures are also resulting in a major increase in the quality of the homes, said Scalia.
"It gets a much higher standard of work and quality assurance and control," he said. "That has been a big victory."
But the campaign is far from over, he said.
"Two terms we will never use are: 'Slam dunk!' or 'Spike the football!' Because it is a process, and though we feel we are doing well, the feedback we get is important.
"We are always looking to improve," said Scalia. "We welcome the feedback."
Residents with problems or concerns about on-post housing can contact The Villages of Benning property management or the Village Mayor, both at: 706-685-3939, or the garrison's Housing Division at: 706-545-8119, 706-545-9611, or 706-545-3803, or call the Emergency Housing Hotline: 706-626-2002. Online, the Housing Division's website is at www.benning.army.mil/Garrison/Housing. They can also call the Garrison Commander at 706-545-1500.