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Putting Safety First

Best management practices in conducting Type II Independent External Peer Reviews are available that can help the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers optimize project delivery while still ensuring the safety of the community comes first.

 

By Heidi Wilbarger, PG, PMP, M.SAME

   


Canton Dam, Okla.

PHOTO BY HEIDI WILBARGER


 

After Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) enhanced an already extensive review strategy. The process, as outlined in a series of engineering circulars (most recently Engineering Circular 1165-2-214), is a comprehensive, life-cycle review strategy for Civil Works projects that includes guidance for implementing Sections 2034 and 2035 of the Water Resource Development Act of 2007. The approach provides a seamless process for project reviews—from initial planning through design and construction, then operation, maintenance, repair, replacement and rehabilitation.

Independent External Peer Reviews (IEPRs) are an integral component of the process. IEPRs are required on all projects considered to involve a “significant risk” to human life if they should fail. IEPRs are high-level, strategic reviews that are conducted by independent experts. There are two types of IEPRs: Type I and Type II. The main difference is that Type I reviews are conducted on decision documents, whereas Type IIs are conducted on implementation documents.

Having conducted Type II IEPRs at 17 sites across the country, KSWA has extensive insight into how to prioritize the safety of the community while also optimizing value for project owner. There are numerous best management practices that fulfill the intent of USACE guidance while providing the agency with the best return on taxpayer investment. For starters, given that all projects are not created equal, a full-scale Type II IEPR is not always appropriate for each project.

 

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

USACE should give consideration to when an IEPR will be most beneficial. The earlier in the project design-procurement-build cycle that district personnel receive IEPR feedback, the more valuable that review will be. There are several questions that should be asked in order to optimize the review. If a construction review is planned, at what point does it make the most sense for the particular experts involved to review the project? Is it most effective for structural and geotechnical engineers to review at the exact same point in construction? Or, should reviews be staggered so that different experts are reviewing the construction phase at more optimum points? Appropriate timing also can apply to contracting for the review itself. Careful planning can mean cost savings.

At Canton Dam in northwest Oklahoma, a complex safety project required an IEPR of two different phases of design and multiple construction phases. The work involved a fuse-gated spillway and excavation of a large soil plug. Overall, USACE Tulsa District required four expert reviewers. But, instead of having all four expert reviewers reviewing each phase, the district planned out which phases should be reviewed by which disciplines. And, it planned for five phases of review in one task order.

Early planning of all phases of review and negotiating all phases as one task order means that USACE does not have to repeat a costly negotiation process multiple times.

 

STATEMENT OF WORK

Included in the engineering circular guidance is a general statement of work that many USACE districts adopt verbatim, regardless of size or technical complexity of a project. It is broad and involves numerous elements. These include a work plan; IEPR team assembly; preparation of the critical items list; orientation briefing; bi-weekly updates; design review; construction review(s); operation, maintenance, repair, replacement and rehabilitation reviews; interim reports after each review; and a final report at conclusion of IEPR process.

If a project only entails raising the height of a levee, including all of these elements is going to cause sticker shock. Cost is proportional to statement of work. A reduced scope equals cost savings. IEPRs are intended to be “scalable.” They can be scaled to fit the size and technical complexity of the project. Personnel tasked with conducting an IEPR have to look at what the project entails and ask serious questions about the statement of work:

  • Is more than one reviewer really needed?
  • Must every reviewer review every phase of the project?
  • If there is only one reviewer, is a full blown work plan necessary, or can it be reduced to a communication plan or eliminated?
  • Does the critical items list need to be a deliverable or can it be discussed and agreed upon during the site visit/orientation briefing?
  • Is it necessary to have interim reports or will one final report suffice?

If the answer is “no” to any of these questions, then take that task out. Scale the statement of work to fit the project.

For a USACE Nashville District inlet modification project at Beaver Creek Dam (an 86-ft tall, high-hazard, earthen dry dam), the initial IEPR included a work plan, the critical items list as a deliverable, three interim reports, and a final report. After a meeting with the project design team and discerning the relatively small size of the project, KSWA recommended removing three interim reports and changing the critical items list from a deliverable to something agreed upon during the orientation briefing (documented in the final report). These relatively minor changes resulted in significant cost savings, while still meeting the intent of USACE guidance.

 

EFFECTIVE AND EFFICIENT

It is often questioned why a project manager needs a lot of time when there are multiple, highly qualified expert reviewers on a task order? There are very good reasons why. IEPR expert reviewers may be new to the process, while project managers, if consistently assigned to IEPRs, may be more efficient at the process. The project manager also serves as a single point of contact between USACE and the expert reviewers. This results in a higher level of independence of the review team and more effective communication. Additionally, project managers review all of the expert reviewers comments to see if they address the “charge,” in addition to removing duplicate comments and resolving any conflicts. Keeping reviewers out of this portion of the process ensures the work is objective and thorough. Most importantly, it has the potential to reduce the effort required by USACE in responding to comments.

Utilizing project managers to conduct all activities except for the actual review leads to significantly lower costs. The hourly rate for a project manager is approximately 40 percent lower than that for a Level 3 structural engineer.

 

SELECTING REVIEWERS

Expert reviewers should be versed in the most critical parts of the project. Yet, cost savings can be achieved by carefully evaluating the experience requirements, as less required experience results in a lower hourly rate. If the in-house design professional on the project only needed 10 years of experience, is an expert reviewer with 15 to 20 years of experience required?

For USACE Galveston District’s Addicks and Barker Dams rehabilitation project in Houston, the design team initially requested five expert reviewers. But the team also determined that all five did not need 20 years experience or more, and asked for Level 2 (10 years experience) mechanical and hydraulics expert reviewers. This decision resulted in a cost savings without losing the appropriate expertise needed.

 

TAILOR THE CHARGE 

The standard “charge” to the expert panel is included in guidance documents and many districts simply copy that into their statement of work. That is perfectly acceptable. To get more value out of the IEPR process, however, USACE design personnel would be well served to tailor the standard charge. The standard charge is very broad. If USACE tailors it to fit a specific project, the district can direct the reviewer’s attention to areas where more emphasis can be placed and, thus, more value received. Nashville District did this very effectively for the Beaver Creek Dam inlet modification. The charge was written such that it was not only project specific, but discipline specific. The expert reviewer was directed to hydrologic and hydraulic issues where USACE wanted feedback. The IEPR yielded deeper insights from an outside engineer on the project’s most critical aspects.

Employing best management practices—including appropriate timing, narrowly defined statements of work, effective and efficient project management, careful selection of reviewers and tailoring the charge to fit the project—will fulfill the intent of USACE’s guidance documents while providing the agency with the best return on taxpayer investment.

USACE projects are not one-size-fits-all: Tailor and scale the IEPR to fit the project.

  


 

Heidi Wilbarger, PG, PMP, M.SAME, is Director of Project Management, K.S. Ware and Associates LLC; 615-255-9702, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..