Fire district gets a grip on data collection
After years of property inspections and data-gathering field trips, firefighters in the San Fernando Valley (Calif.) Fire District had information to burn. The district had a pile of paper reports and property histories, but it had limited means to process the data. All that changed last April, when the district automated its data-collection process. In doing so, it enhanced the fire department’s ability to collect and organize information, access it quickly, and use it to prevent one of the area’s most threatening occurrences: brush fires.
The San Fernando Valley Mountain Fire District spans nearly 180,000 private and public properties in an area that is covered with fuel for brush fires. Each summer, nearly 50 inspectors from the Los Angeles Fire Department’s Valley Fire Prevention Office examine the district for potential fire hazards, and they update the office’s database with property location coordinates and information about safety violations.
For years, LAFD recorded inspection data manually, says Jack Shafer, senior systems analyst for the department’s support services division. After a day in the field, the inspectors generated their reports by hand and, in doing so, spent nearly 40 percent of their working day on paperwork, he says.
Support Services personnel took the information from the reports and entered it into a computer system, which the Fire Prevention Office used to produce trends analyses. However, a backlog resulted when the number of reports overwhelmed data-entry personnel.
To alleviate the report-writing and data-entry burdens, LAFD issued handheld, computerized devices to its inspectors. Provided by Symbol Technology, Holtsville, N.Y., the devices fit into rubber boots on the inspectors’ arms and allow users to make on-the-spot reports from the field.
Now, when an inspector visits a property, he scans a bar code that activates a drop-down menu of common safety violations. He can log violations from that menu, or he can access an entry field and input data regarding extraordinary violations.
Using that entry field, the inspector can access three drop-down lists: one showing additional types of hazards; one that identifies the type of work necessary to remedy the violation; and one identifying violation locations on the property. The inspector chooses from any of the drop-down items or, using handwriting recognition features on the device, he can enter the violation data manually.
In addition to making the inspectors’ jobs easier, the handheld data-collection system eliminates the need for data entry. At the end of each day, data from the devices is downloaded onto a network, where Support Services retrieves it and channels it to the server for the Fire Prevention Offi ce.
“Once we incorporate the new inspection data into the server repository, we update the records and track every change made to a property’s status,” Shafer says. “We generate violation notices from the central location at the Fire Prevention Office. And, to ensure that violators comply with fire prevention measures, we print a map for each inspector so he or she can revisit the property and confirm that the hazard has been abated.”
Only four months old, the data-collection system is saving LAFD time and money. Reporting and data-entry time has dropped nearly 50 percent, according to LAFD Captain Paul Quagliata. He notes that inspectors are now able to spend the time once dedicated to paperwork on more productive inspection tasks.
And savings is not limited to time and money, Shafer adds. “The reality is, if this new technology allows us to inspect more properties and abate more combustible material, then we can save something even more precious [than time and money] — people’s lives and homes — and that’s the bottom line,” he says.