Fire Department Automates with Hosted Permit Service
The Miami-Dade County Fire and Rescue Department provides safety, fire prevention, and life-saving services for more than 2.4 million people in 27 South Florida municipalities. The Department is recognized as a model for service, efficiency, and effectiveness by fire departments across the country. One of the primary responsibilities of the Department’s Fire Prevention Division is providing commercial and industrial inspections and permitting for fire and safety compliance. This includes annual, life safety inspections and permit renewals for the county’s nearly 60,000 existing commercial occupancies, as well as fire engineering plan review, inspection, and permitting for 20,000 to 25,000 construction projects each yeara daunting task for the department’s 43 inspectors and 9 administrators.
“It was just impossible to handle this volume with a paper-driven process,” said Chief Alfredo Suarez, Miami-Dade County Fire Marshal. “The Department needed a way to manage the life safety permit process quickly, better, and more cost effectively. We knew we had to automate.”
In addition to inspections and permitting, the Department is required by Florida state law to maintain complete records of occupancy for every commercial building in its jurisdiction. This includes every permit ever pulledlife safety, sprinkler, fire alarmall code compliance citations, every inspection ever conducted, records of any fire investigationfor as long as the building exists. “That’s a tremendous record-keeping task when you consider all the commercial buildings in Dade County. Our file room contained about 60,000 occupancy files,” said Chief Suarez.
The Department teamed with San Francisco, CA-based Accela to implement a Web-based service to streamline and simplify its inspection, permitting, plan review, and record-keeping processes. By choosing Accela’s Automation, hosted application, which is leased and accessed via the Internet, there was no large capital investment required and no additional support staff needed to maintain the system.
“Because we didn’t have to purchase a system, build infrastructure, create software, or increase our IT staff, using a hosted system saved the community more than three million dollars right off the bat,” said Chief Suarez.
The system has completely streamlined and automated the fire safety permit renewal and code enforcement process. Now, when a permit comes up for renewal, the system automatically generates a renewal notice. Billing notices are then sent automatically at 30-, 60- and 90-day intervals. If the occupant hasn’t renewed, after 120 days the case is automatically referred to the Code Enforcement division. “Since the financial services are totally automated within Accela Automation, the system acts as its own collection service,” said Chief Suarez. “The only thing administration has to do is post the check when it’s received from the building occupant.”
One of the areas that has benefited most from automation is the Department’s plan review process. The Department conducts initial plan reviews on between 20,000 and 25,000 construction projects each year. Each project undergoes an average of three revisions, and each revision must also be reviewed, bringing the total to 75,000 reviews. Dade County ordinance mandates that the Department review construction plans within nine days.
“Not only does the system help us to stay on track, but it’s enabled us to reduce the review process to less than five days. In fact, now 80 percent of all review are accomplished in 24 hours or less,” said Chief Suarez.
Associated with these plan reviews are over 100,000 inspections that require scheduling, recording, and tracking. Through wireless devices, the inspectors in the field can input information directly into the Department’s database right from the inspection site. “The laptops will really increase our productivity,” said Chief Suarez. “By eliminating the steps involved in recording and re-keying information from an inspection, we are saving literally hundreds of hours in administration.” Beyond providing increased public safety through a more efficient inspection and permitting process, the Department, which is funded through ad valorem taxes, has also steadily reduced it’s ad valorem requirement since implementing the automated system three years ago.
“In the three years since we’ve automated, we’ve grown more than four fold in every phase of our operation, not only in productivity, but in revenue as well,” said Chief Suarez. “In the first year alone, productivity and revenue increased more than 200 percent! We’ve reduced our ad valorem tax substantially since automating. That means that revenue that would have funded this division, instead went to fund new operational stations. So, not only did the taxpayers get new services with no increase in ad valorem tax the mill rate actually went down for the first time in community history. A safer community and reduced taxes – what greater benefit could we offer our community?”
“Because we didn’t have to purchase a system, build infrastructure, create software, or increase our IT staff, using a hosted system saved the community more than $3 million right off the bat.”