Keeping Pace

Washington County, Md., uses mobile inspection management software from Accela

by / January 24, 2007
The emergence of the digital community is proving that any number of tasks undertaken by government can be radically improved upon. The doors opened by widespread, high-speed connectivity are too numerous to count and are impacting the daily lives of workers and citizens alike.

Such is the case in Washington County, Md., where explosive population growth signaled to county officials that their traditional methods of permitting and inspecting were rapidly becoming inadequate. The county faced a challenge shared by many local governments. Building inspectors were forced to do their jobs by wading through duplicative, paper-intensive processes that translated into errors and inefficiency.

The county needed a highly mobile, intelligent solution not only to improve inspectors' ability to work but to improve service to residents. By adopting Accela Wireless?, a mobile solution from Accela, the county is transforming the business of government and advancing the case for the digital community.

Inspector's Gadget
Angela Smith, deputy director of the Washington County Office of Permits and Inspections, said population growth left a well intentioned group of workers struggling to keep up.

"Washington County was growing very rapidly, and we were seeing a huge increase--about 36 percent--in the permitting process," she said. "We saw a lot of people moving down here from Baltimore and D.C. We were faced with a challenge of rapid growth, and it was getting difficult to keep on top of inspections."

Inspectors, who were already spread thin, wasted time on duplicative efforts that resulted from the paper-based process. Inspectors manually documented inspections in the field and then documented the same inspection in the office the following day. Employees hired to do inspections were spending nearly half their time doing clerical work while opening themselves up to errors associated with the repetitive documentation
process. With the amount of growth the county was experiencing, Washington County simply did not have enough employees to maintain the traditional system of permitting and inspections.

"Because we did not have enough people to meet the growing demands of the community, we began to look for a solution," Smith recalled. "What can we do to address situations as they arise at the site? What can we do to, at the same time, increase the customer service we offer our customers in Washington County? The solution that we came up with was Accela's mobile inspection management software, Accela Wireless."

Inspectors using Panasonic notebooks equipped with Accela Wireless now have their entire office at their fingertips in the field, where it is most needed. County workers have digital guide sheets and checklists on their notebooks that they can use to explain to customers exactly what they can expect from the inspection process. Inspectors can immediately download new building codes and explain them to builders on site, saving trips back to the office.

Inspectors often arrive at a building site and find it is not ready for inspection. In the past, this meant hours wasted traveling between the office and the site merely to reschedule. With Accela Wireless, inspectors can reschedule inspections on site. In fact, every aspect of their job can be done on site. Photos can be taken and immediately transmitted to county code officials, and building permits can be initialized by inspectors in the field instead of back at the office. A process that once took two to three days can now be handled in minutes. After an inspection site is documented, the data is easily transmitted from the job site to the county database, virtually eliminating errors and time spent reentering the data.

Accela Wireless also provides a virtual library of every code and law inpectors might need to access, all wirelessly. The wealth of knowledge and innovative tools available on site has fundamentally altered how county inspectors work. Even the simple addition of on-site e-mail has eliminated costly cell phone bills and enabled more reliable communication.

With Accela Wireless, Smith said the county has seen at least a 30 percent increase in the number of inspections being carried out, saving each inspector an hour and a half per day of wasted time.

"Our inspectors were able, using Accela Wireless, to drastically change the way in which they function," Smith said. "It has increased our efficiency, minimized inspection time and enabled them to do more inspections. That speaks volumes to the community. It shows we are flexible and here to meet their needs."

Community Service
The point of all of this--indeed the point of the digital community--is to improve how government serves citizens.

As an example of how Accela Wireless impacts citizens' lives, Smith recalled an incident where a vehicle crashed into a house at 2:30 a.m. The county's response process used to take weeks but can now be done in a day.

"We got called to the site because they did not feel the structure was safe because the vehicle hit right on the corner of the house," she said. "Our inspector went out to the site, and he took his notebook, did a service request and took pictures at the site. There were corrections and some adjustments that had to be made within the next 24 hours for the people to continue living in that house."

Because the property owner lived in another state, the inspector e-mailed him pictures and other information necessary to move forward with repairs.

"When the property owner awoke that morning, he not only had been informed that there were corrections that needed to be made but he had pictures showing him everything that had to be repaired. He was able to call his insurance company and contractor to make the necessary corrections. Within 24 hours, everything was moving ahead."