Editor's Points: Ethics in Land Surveying
Disasters can bring out the best and worst in people. Some will give generously and unselfishly while others will prey on the victims. The events in Houston and across Florida and the Southeast demonstrate much of the better side of human nature as aid and assistance have poured in even before the waters started to recede.
There’s a larger discussion on the national stage that waxes and wanes centered on politicians and corporate executives and their degree of ethical or unethical behavior. That’s a conversation for a different venue, but it demonstrates we are paying attention to this issue if we are not, in fact, grappling with what is and isn’t ethical practice.
I recently received a note from a reader who recounted an incident from the beginning of his career. On a paving job, the client approached the crew chief and offered a bribe if he would falsify the survey to show there were no issues with ponding or drainage. Being more than a little intimidated by the battle-hardened ex-marine who was the chief, the future career surveyor kept quiet. Though he did not confront the unethical practice directly when it happened, it did affect the way he conducted his own surveying career. He was clearly an ethical person if it bothered him to see someone do something so clearly wrong. If that incident guided him in his career and in how he mentored new surveyors, it can be argued that more good than bad came out of the incident.
One of the risks in a post-disaster environment is that rules may be relaxed or even suspended temporarily. The absence of authorities to enforce the rules may also give the same impression. There is a danger that people who are trying to do the right thing may cross the line — intentionally or inadvertently. During the 2016 hurricane season, such an unintentional violation occurred when authorities in Florida hired an out-of-state photo imaging company to conduct UAV flights to collect images for damage assessment. Under Florida ordinances, the work performed required a Florida surveyors license. POB inadvertently exposed the problem when we ran a story about the storm recovery effort.
The patchwork quilt of regulations and ordinances governing land surveying and geospatial practices across the country, in itself, provides plenty of opportunities for unintentional transgressions. When timelines are compressed and resources stretched, as in a disaster recovery effort, the primary concern should be safety. Errors of omission are certainly common under the circumstances. It’s not our place to judge the earlier incident, but it does serve as an example that even in a chaotic world, there are still rules intended to protect the public. We can only hope that post-Harvey and post-Irma, the circumstances of any violations are weighed against actual intentions.
I draw a lesson from a book that is now one of my favorites. “Preferred Lies,” by Andrew Greig. In one incident from the book, Greig recounts playing a hole on an old, seldom-used course on a Scottish island. His ball has rolled up inside a rabbit skeleton, and he must decide how to play it. He reflects on a lesson from his father: “What matters in life is what you do when no one is looking.” To me, that is the ultimate definition of ethics.