Fire code inspectors in Washington, D.C., aren’t burning up any speed records after a move to a paperless records system, but the technology has streamlined operations and improved the accuracy of their reports.
Inspectors from the Washington, D.C., Fire and Emergency Medical Services (FEMS) Fire Prevention Division began filling out reports digitally in October. According to Fire Marshal Bruce Faust, the change is temporarily hurting productivity, but the statistical benefits should outweigh the initial bumps in the road.
Since inspectors now use laptops instead of code manuals and paper forms, the department can access valuable inspection data almost immediately. Faust said having information on what was inspected, the average time of an inspection, what the biggest violations are and what’s cited most often ultimately will help the DCFEMS operate more efficiently.
“It’s going to help us justify what we do and how many inspectors we need to do the job we’re supposed to do, and tell us capacity for the future,” Faust said.
The upfront price for more accurate data, however, has been a decrease in performance. Faust said he briefed D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe to expect that fewer inspections would be done as inspectors learned and got comfortable with the new system.
Faust explained that while the division conducts approximately 12,000 inspections annually, that number was misleading because it was based on manual computations. A more realistic number will be determined after a year is spent on the new computerized system, he said.
Prior to using the new fire records management system (FRMS) from ZOLL Data Management, all inspection activities were done on paper. Inspectors filled out report forms, violation notices and daily activities by hand and then filed those documents at the office.
Each inspector would have a daily roster and would check off that they inspected a particular address and recorded the time it took. A supervisor would take those rosters and do a weekly tabulation sheet and an end-of-the-month spreadsheet.
Inspectors would walk through a building, make notes, and then sit down and write out a four-page notice of violation. They’d have to flip through code manuals to find specific sections of the fire code that were violated, reference those by hand in the report and ultimately find the property owner and issue him or her the notice.
“It was cumbersome because it was time consuming and absolutely horrendous for trying to determine statistics,” Faust said.
Writing up and filing an inspection report now is simplified. Armed with Panasonic Toughbook computers, fire code inspectors punch up infraction notices on their laptops and fill them out electronically.
In addition, the District of Columbia Municipal Regulations Fire Code Supplement and the International Fire Codes are loaded into the software. Now the code manuals can be left at the office.
An inspector can print a violation notice on the spot and hand it to the violator or it can be emailed to him or her. The inspection reports are automatically transmitted back to the FEMS office.
“Once the inspector completes, saves and prints the report, it's automatically saved wirelessly to the FRMS database on the server inside our network,” explained Ozell Cooper, the project manager of the new fire records system. “Any one of the inspectors has access to the FRMS program with the correct credentials, including the fire chief and fire marshal.”
A copy of the report is also saved on the laptop and inspectors only need to manually transfer the report if there are additional attachments, such as pictures or third-party inspection details.
Cooper said 40 laptops were purchased for the move to an all-digital system and 34 are currently issued to inspectors. A few more may also find their way into the hands of arson investigators to help with their inspections. That arson information will also be uploaded into the FRMS database so that all information can be linked together for better record management.
In addition to the computers, the paperless project also involved buying a wireless building occupancy module for inspection reporting as a software add-on to the FRMS. Cooper and Faust didn’t have exact numbers, but said the total investment for the computers and the module was less than $1 million. Fire and Emergency Medical Services also pays a yearly maintenance fee for the technology.
The process had some early hiccups. FRMS and the reporting module were first tested in 2010, but there were a number of issues to address before it could be used effectively. Some of the growing pains included problems with the laptops syncing with the database server and additional modifications that were needed to handle workflow.
Those items included a re-inspection option that was needed in the program and a fix to ensure that the District of Columbia Municipal Regulations and the International Fire Codes could be viewed in the same screen as the inspection report.
“We would have liked to roll it out in 2010, but we weren’t ready — we had too many glitches in the system,” Faust said. Extensive training was also needed. “With going wireless at the same time, so it was a big task.”
In the beginning, some inspectors resisted the new system, looking at it more as an oversight mechanism rather than a tool. “At first they thought it was additional work or they were being monitored,” Cooper said. “For them it was easier to go in and do the paperwork. … They didn’t see the value in having that information cataloged.”
After five months of using the new system, inspectors are becoming more comfortable. Faust said the number of daily inspections started out slowly, but now some personnel are doing almost 10 per day. To help move the adjustment period along, Faust also is pairing inspectors who have taken quickly to the system with those who’ve been more resistant.
Overall, Faust believed that 75 to 80 percent of his personnel are on board at this point, and he’s seeing proficiency improve each week.
Cooper said one of the features she’d like to see included in a future software upgrade is the ability to take photos of a building or a code violation and embed them directly in a report. Right now, whenever photos are a part of a report, inspectors have to manually download and send them as attachments, which adds an extra step to the process.
In addition, Faust would like to get rid of the portable printers that inspectors use to print violation notices for property owners. He’d prefer to use email exclusively. Other software products offer a one-button integrated approach to email reports, Faust said.
“It would make it truly paperless and green, Faust explained. “But we had to have a solution immediately and the printers weren’t a lot of cost,” Carrying a rugged laptop and a printer on the subway can be a chore. “It’s not as ergonomically friendly as I would like, but it will be in the future.”
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.