FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Oct. 9, 2019) -- Fort Drum housing inspectors carry a lot of tools in their kits. Testers for water temperature and electrical outlets, a flashlight to illuminate dark corners and crevices, gloves and a handy camera phone are among them.

All of that helps them track deficiencies as they work with the Mountain Community Homes staff to resolve issues before new residents move into the home.

However, there is one more thing that they carry with them whenever they walk through the front door: empathy.

Hilda Martinez earnestly believes this, and she said that it impacts every member of the Fort Drum Residential Communities Initiative / Housing Division inspection team.

"To do an inspection, it's not just going into a house and looking it over," she said. "When we inspect a house, we are saying that this house meets the standard and that it passes all the life, health and safety requirements. But more than that, all of us here look at it like this: Would I put my family in there? Would I be happy there?"

Bill Bamann, RCI/Housing Division chief, said that the key to resident satisfaction is establishing a good first impression.

"Ensuring a home is free from defects goes a long way to making that good first impression," he said. "Our Soldiers deserve a home that is clean, that has no life, health or safety issues, and everything - from appliances and plumbing to electrical fixtures, windows and doors - works and operates properly."

Martinez has worked at all levels of the Public Works Housing Division over the past 34 years and has served at Fort Drum since 1990. She also knows firsthand as a former service member what it is like to move from one duty station to another, starting a new household over again, and so do other members of the inspection team.

"We know how it is. Relocating is tough," Martinez said. "You don't want to make it harder for someone, and have them think, 'What are they doing to me? Why are we being treated like this?' So, you really have to empathize and treat the inspection as if it were your own home."

Experience has taught Martinez that to be effective and efficient in an inspection, a reliable system needs to be established.

"Continuity is important," she said. "Once you have a system, your workflow becomes easier. There's no cutting corners, because you're just doing everything in a more efficient way."

"We always start upstairs working clockwise, room by room, hall by hall, working your way out," she said. "The last area is the kitchen."

Then, the garage and exterior of the home are inspected - all based on an U.S. Army Installation Management Command-prescribed checklist for Change of Occupancy Maintenance (COM) inspections.

"We look at the condition of the walls and ceilings to see if they have a uniform appearance; we inspect all the outlets, windows and blinds, plumbing, drainage, smoke detectors, CO (carbon monoxide) detectors and so on," Martinez said. "We make sure all the maintenance has been completed and everything is ready for people to move in. It's really like a check-and-balance to make sure that everything that is supposed to be done has been done."

Martinez said that she was in the middle of an inspection when a young noncommissioned officer was being shown a home. He asked Martinez to continue her work and later wanted to know what she had found.

"Sometimes our paths cross while I'm checking a house, and I think it makes them feel better knowing that a government representative is checking the house," she said. "He was fine with what I found - it was a small leak underneath the bathroom sink. But not everyone is going to fill up the sink to the rim to check the overflow hole. He said that he never would have checked that. But we go to that extent, and we try our best to make sure they are happy with their home."

Inspectors use their camera phones to capture discrepancies, and they send the photos to their MCH partners to get items fixed in a timely manner.

"We're calling them, sending them the photos right there at the house," she said. "Sometimes the maintenance department will respond right away, and sometimes it requires a work order. When they text us back that it is ready, we make a point of going back and making sure it is done."

New residents are informed when something is not rectified prior to the move-in date. A notice is placed inside the home citing what needs to be corrected, when it is expected to be completed and the work order number.

Martinez said that, despite best efforts, she understands that it is impossible to meet everyone's expectations for housing. Carpet tiles is a contentious issue for many residents who prefer wall-to-wall carpeting, even though the former is easier to replace when damaged. Also, moving into a new home does not necessarily mean the home is new. Martinez said that people naturally will prefer moving into newer housing rather than older housing units.

"Older housing does not mean the house is inadequate or substandard," she said, "If you came from a different post that had newer or a different style of housing, then you might expect the same somewhere else. Sometimes it's just a personal feeling, and we respect that."

While the COM inspection is the main effort for quality assurance in the move-in process, Bamann said that the RCI / Housing Division has additional responsibilities to support residents. They conduct quality assurance of 5 percent of daily completed work orders, to include inspections when the resident isn't satisfied with the work. They inspect 100 percent of life/health/safety work orders, which typically require multiple visits.

The Housing Division also follow up on every issue raised through ICE comments or the Commander's Hotline, as well as dissatisfied resident complaints that typically also require inspections.

Additionally, Mountain Community Homes is required to perform an annual preventative maintenance inspection that includes checking all appliances, water heaters, smoke and CO detectors, furnaces and boilers.

Before the privatized military housing crisis effected immediate changes across the services earlier this year, Martinez was the only full-time inspector in the RCI/Housing Division. She was responsible for conducting random inspections of 10 percent of the housing units undergoing Change of Occupancy Maintenance every quarter.

When that number went to 100-percent inspections, Martinez was responsible for training military volunteers until permanent staff members were hired. This included two temporary positions for the summer moving surge known as PCS (permanent change of station) season.

"The main thing for me was making sure everyone had the right tools for the job, even things like rain gear and safety boots, because we're out there in every kind of weather," Martinez said.

Between April and early September, the team conducted 916 inspections.

"That's a lot," Martinez said. "I'm pretty good at my job, but I couldn't do all those inspections myself."

Bamann said that the team was averaging five inspections daily before the summer surge and then ramped up to 12 to 16 a day.

"With many homes having families waiting to move in, we needed to inspect them immediately before the family moves in that evening or the next day," he said. "Hilda has been able to coordinate with Mountain Community Homes to know which homes have families waiting and which do not, so we could concentrate our efforts."

For the most part, the inspection team receives calls that homes are ready for inspection after 3 p.m., which makes for a formidable task.

"We reached a new daily record of 16 inspections in one day, and that occurred three times this summer," Bamann said. "Most days had about 11 to 14 inspections this summer. However, I take pride in our ability to respond to those that need to be completed immediately and those which can wait until the following morning. That enabled us to adequately inspect each and every one."

Martinez said that the inspection team members learn from each other and share lessons learned from past work experiences to improve their processes.

"We are a team. We work as a team, and we look out for each other when we're out there," she said. "We share the work equally."

Although they've only been together for a short amount of time, Martinez said that the inspectors quickly developed team camaraderie and pride in what they do.

"But what's really important to us, and to our partner, Mountain Community Homes, is giving that family a place they can consider is their home," she said. "The final objective is always the home - it's ensuring these service members and their families are comfortable and safe, and continue with their mission without worrying about the conditions of their homes."