Turf Wars, Flood Data, and Professionalism

Sometimes it is hard to pigeon-hole events into a single category to be able to come up with a title that will appropriately reflect the topic. This time I used the buckshot method to try to catch it all. At the request of one of the parties involved, I’ve left out specifics that would identify that person.

It all started when an engineer in a state to remain unnamed submitted an Elevation Certificate for proposed construction to a municipality in that state. The local Code Enforcement Inspector refused to confront the question of who could complete the form, forwarding it instead to the State’s Coordinator for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), who stated that the form was to be signed by a surveyor. This triggered a lengthy argument by the engineer about surveyors only being required for post-construction, based on the scope of engineering including the reading and interpretation of proposed construction drawings, Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs), and the profiles in the Flood Insurance Study (FIS) reports that accompany FIRMs.

The NFIP Coordinator countered by pointing out to the engineer that the instructions for the Elevation Certificate specify that the form is to be completed by only those professionals who are “authorized by law” (in bold red in the email), and then citing that state’s specific statutes defining professional scope of practice.

An architect on the project then provided an interpretation of the State’s statutes for professional conduct as allowing architects and engineers to expand their practices based on qualification and experience. This architect then opined that this allowed either professional to read topographic surveys and fill in relevant data on the Elevation Certificate, that any other interpretation would improperly limit these professional practices in the state, and that most surveyors wouldn’t fill out the form based on proposed elevations anyway.

The NFIP Coordinator was concerned that a self-determined voluntary expansion of practice would lead to engineers completing Elevation Certificates without really understanding them, harming the public in the process. The next step was to reach out to the State’s licensing board for a legal opinion about who could certify elevations.

The response came a week later, with the messenger noting that there were “several examples at hand”: Elevations Certificates are to be prepared by surveyors in that state, as provided in the statutes and as is standard practice. Outside of the Elevation Certificate, practices such as a drainage analysis fall within engineering.

Thanks to a brave NFIP Coordinator who stuck it out against some pretty aggressive turf war tactics, both the public and the practice of surveying have been protected in that state. Perhaps not everyone has such a champion in their state, but let’s look at some of the language minimized by the engineer and architect in their arguments. Section D is the part of the form in which the certifying professional supplies comments, signature, and seal. The header for Section D does state “Surveyor, Engineer, or Architect Certification.” Surveyors get top billing here, but FEMA can’t impose limits on what a state allows the other two professionals to do. The lines directly beneath this indicate that the signer must be authorized by law to certify elevation information. This is reiterated in the instructions for Section D. What it means is that statutes in the individual state in which the property is located AND the signer is licensed (these must be the same) must allow that signer to certify elevation data. Aside from the obvious legal aspects, I’m not sure how many engineers or architects understand conversions between NGVD 1929 and NAVD 1988 when FIRMs and current surveyed elevations aren’t in the same datum.

The next point made by the NFIP Coordinator in this story is significant: understanding the nuances of the Elevation Certificate is a significant factor in correct completion. This translates to prevention of harm to property owners, who rely on the form for pre-construction permitting, for Certificates of Occupancy, and for flood insurance rating. Assuring correct data in the correct location on the form with appropriate comments, explanations, and supporting documentation requires more than copying numbers from a plan to the form.

There is another aspect of this saga that grates my patience, and that is what appears to be arrogance by the engineer (and supporting architect). It’s the same reaction I have when someone says I’m “just” a surveyor. Beyond the loose self-serving interpretation of laws, the emails to the public service staff involved had a tone of near-condescension. We all owe each other professional courtesy and acknowledgement of our various knowledge and skill sets.

Finally, I’d like to make a plug for how surveyors can overcome some of this turf war and condescension by showing we have particular qualifications that should earn us the respect and right to complete Elevation Certificates without being stepped on by engineers or architects. If you are in one of the few states with a Certified Floodplain Surveyor program, enroll in the training and take the test to put CFS after your name. If you aren’t in one of those lucky places, pursue Certified Floodplain Manager (CFM) credentials from the Association of State Floodplain Managers (www.floods.org), which requires a bit more training and experience but shows others your commitment to understanding the NFIP.

About the Author

Wendy Lathrop, PS, CFM, CFS

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.