Los Angeles Fire Department is unveiling new technology later this month as a 65-person task force will be trained on tablet computers for use during the city’s annual brush-clearing inspections.

The department’s Brush Clearance Unit will be sending out its Brush Task Force with Dell tablet PCs to help make the inspections of 132,000 properties more efficient and interactive. The tablets are part of an overall upgrade of the unit’s Vegetation Management System that went live this winter. Called VMS 2, the Web-based program tracks the inspections, billing and any violations that are found.

The new technology is a far cry from last year, when inspectors used outdated Palm Pilots to inspect and record violations. According to Capt. Robert Knight of the Brush Clearance Unit, because of the uptick in the foreclosure market, inspectors have had a hard time locating the correct property owners. Even if they were found, owners had difficulty figuring out exactly where violations were on their property.

Knight believes the new system, which is paid for entirely through the fees assessed for compliance violations, should alleviate many of the problems experienced by both inspectors and residents.

“It allows us to track all parcel information that we gather from the county assessor’s office,” Knight explained, regarding the new tablets and VMS 2. “You bring up the actual parcel number and it has property owner information, previous hazards, satellite imagery — and inspectors can make [marks] on the map with notations on where the hazards are.”

Once the inspection is complete, the inspector takes the tablet PC to a docking station where the reports are automatically downloaded into VMS 2. For those property owners who have violations, a notice is printed that includes not just a description of the violation, but the inspector’s handwritten marks on the map imagery of the property. The inspector’s mark-ups show exactly what is out of compliance.

The city charges $23 annually for the inspection. However, residents can do the inspections themselves, using instructions and tips the Brush Clearance Unit provides online and in a mass mailer. If citizens do the inspection and mail in an affidavit saying they are in compliance, they are not charged the $23 fee, unless a subsequent verification by the unit shows noncompliance on the property.

The new technology for the inspections is also useful for citizens. With VMS 2 keeping track of information, property owners can go online and access a range of data including: status of an affidavit, date and time of the inspection, fees owed due to unabated hazards, the hazard notice, and the assessors parcel number and PIN. Property owners can pay their bill online with a credit card.

The Los Angeles Fire Department said the system has already helped increase the Brush Clearance Unit’s efficiency. Knight said his unit received 17,000 affidavits last year from citizens. Using the first non-Web-based version of VMS, it took staff two months to process the affidavits. This year, the unit received nearly 40,000 affidavits and nearly all of them are finished.

Although the tablet PCs won’t be in official use until inspections begin in May, Knight said his unit has thoroughly tested the devices and it’s looking forward to seeing them perform for real.

“We’re very excited about it,” Knight said. “We recognize it is brand new and there may be some bugs and unforeseen things. But it seems like [the tablets and VMS 2] are going to answer 80 to 90 percent of the questions of property owners have, and it’ll make it easier to process a large volume of notices.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.