Reporting for inspection
Fire and code inspectors in Temecula, Calif., are issuing inspection reports faster as a result of a wireless technology project that has connected portable computers with the city’s network. The project, which launched in July, allows residents to receive inspection reports instantly instead of in up to three business days.
Since 1992, the city has been using automated permitting software to track and manage all the steps involved with issuing permits — from checking in applications and reviewing plans to calculating fees and scheduling inspections. However, the city’s inspection process remained dependent on paper reports. For example, the city’s three fire inspectors would spend most of each day traveling throughout the city conducting between three and seven inspections each, manually completing inspection forms and returning them to the home office at the end of each day. Administrative staff would enter the paper reports into the permit system, resulting in a delay of two to three days between the actual inspection and when it was updated in the online permitting system.
Residents regularly complained to council members about the length of time the city took to complete inspections. Because an inspection is often the final step in a lengthy permit application process, anything that could be done to speed up the process would benefit the residents.
As city staff began looking at possible solutions, they became more interested in implementing wireless technology. With the proliferation of new mobile devices, such as pocket PCs and tablet PCs, workforces were becoming increasingly productive in the field, and city staff saw a way to apply that success. “We felt strongly that utilizing wireless technology would improve efficiency for our inspectors,” says Steve Brown, code enforcement manager. “If inspectors were equipped with proper technology in the field, they could minimize their travel time to and from the home office and process more inspections per day.”
Last year, Temecula contracted with Dublin, Calif.-based Accela to provide a wireless application that would connect portable computers with the city’s existing land management database and allow inspectors to transfer many of their daily tasks from the office to the field. The project began with city’s Fire Department. Fire inspectors were equipped with tablet PCs from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Fujitsu that ran the wireless application.
Using the program, inspectors can view their daily inspection schedules, access relevant property data and sign off on completed inspections. All of their activities are updated in the database immediately, so they do not need to return to the office at the end of the day. The inspection results are available instantly, which means that the permit application can be approved quicker.
Soon after fire inspectors began using the wireless application, the city extended the technology to the Code Enforcement Department. While in the field responding to reported code violations, inspectors often come across unreported violations — abandoned vehicles, illegal signage or lack of landscape maintenance, for example. The wireless technology allows inspectors to remotely access the land management database to view current parcel data or code violation history and create new cases as necessary. The new code violations are updated automatically in the main database, so, if the home office receives a call about the violation, it can provide the most current information.
In addition to the city’s full-time inspectors, the Fire Department would sometimes rely on alternate inspectors to keep up with current workload. However, with the addition of a wireless system, inspectors can spend more time in the field and complete more inspections daily. Consequently, the department can keep up with massive community growth without contracting more inspectors. “Our ability to leverage mobile technology allows us to do more with our existing resources,” says Jim McBride, fire marshal. “Our full-time inspectors can do more in the same amount of time, and the department is relying less on bringing in contract inspectors. The end result is better, faster service for our citizens.”
The success of the Fire and Code Enforcement Departments has convinced other city departments to investigate wireless applications. In developing the city budget for next year, both the Building Department and Public Works will be reviewing the other departments’ results to determine how they can implement wireless technology.
Tim Thorson, director of information systems for Temecula, Calif.