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Buried in Paper, Springfield, IL Fire Department Turns to Handheld PCs

Can't find the right inspection program? Consider building your own.

The handheld PC is not just for computer geeks - it's also a valuable tool that fire departments and other public safety agencies can use for collecting and managing information. The ability to carry thousands of inspection records - the equivalent of dozens of file cabinets - in a gadget that fits in the palm of your hand is not only convenient, it allows new possibilities for analyzing data that are virtually impossible with paper records.

Fire departments likely have questions about to make a successful transition from traditional paper files to handheld PCs and electronic records. Whatunits should we buy? Will people actually use them? How can we use the data? The biggest puzzle is finding a software application that fits the requirements of the municipality. The specifics of local regulations create requirements for collecting and managing data that cannot be met by off-the-shelf programs. Few departments can afford an expensive programming effort traditionally required for a customized solution. However, non-traditional alternatives can be surprisingly effective, while keeping within a tight municipal budget.

Thousands of Inspections Annually
One organization making the switch is the Springfield, Illinois Fire Department, which is moving to handhelds for its fire safety inspections. The City of Springfield has about 6,000 commercial buildings and 2000 multi-family dwellings (3 units or more) which are inspected annually for violations of fire safety codes or city ordinances. If violations are found, the building or residential unit must be re-inspected within 30 days.

Captain Michael Putnam is leading the Fire Department's transition to computerized inspections. The new approach uses a Compaq iPAQ handheld running an inspection program Putnam developed himself with a software tool called SYWARE Visual CE®. An inspector in the department's Fire Safety Division, Putnam has inspected over 300 buildings and performed over 800 total inspections since spring of 2002 to show the effectiveness of the technology. Starting January 1, 2003, the city's eight Fire Safety Inspectors have begun using handheld PCs running Putnam's application for all new fire safety inspections in the city.

The process has proven faster and easier than traditional paper-based forms, allowing inspectors to work more efficiently. Once standard information such as building address, owner and phone number has been tapped in, it simply has to be verified rather than reentered for future inspections. This saves time for inspectors and eliminates errors that can occur when reentering data or trying to decipher illegible handwriting.

But the new system is about more than just convenience - it also adds a new dimension for managing and analyzing information. For example, with all inspection details on his iPAQ, Putnam doesn't have to call the office to have someone look up a file or make a return trip himself. All fire safety inspections for the past ten years are stored in 24 four-drawer file cabinets at department headquarters. Until now, inspectors or clerical staff had to manually search for inspection reports or to learn whether an inspection had been done at a particular location. Sifting through paper records to find needed information could take hours. It was even worse if documents were mis-filed.

The iPAQ can also store an Excel spreadsheet containing all code violations of the BOCA Fire Prevention Code, along with explanations. If a business owner or landlord has a question, the inspector can immediately access a description of the violation and explain what it means, rather than going out to the car for the manual. Another advantage is flexible, immediate access to inspection details based on a wide variety of search criteria - by date, address, type of business, type of violation and any other relevant categories. As a result, he is now able to obtain information that was previously impossible or highly impractical because of the time required to hunt through paper files.

"Making Inspections Fun Again"
Since the spring of 2002, Putnam and two colleagues have been piloting the new method. He explains that the learning curve was almost non-existent, even for computer novices. "One inspector had no previous experience with a computer keyboard, or even a typewriter, yet he was able to pick it up right away. He says that having all the information in his hand makes doing inspections fun again. He hated carrying around folders and shuffling paper records."

An electronic inspection begins by selecting New Inspection from a drop-down list (a re-inspection could also be specified). Then the inspector taps in basic details such as business name, address, phone number, building owner, owner's address and after-hours contact person. For future inspections, all this information will be stored on the handheld and simply needs to be confirmed rather than reentered.

Screens for Capturing Basic Information about the Inspection Site

The inspector then taps through various fields to record basic information about the business, such as whether it has a sprinkler system, an alarm system, a basement and so forth. Depending on the answers, pop-up windows may open to specify additional details. For example, if YES is tapped to indicate a sprinkler system, a window opens to specify if it is wet or dry. Other prompts appear based on business specific criteria, such as the hood system in the kitchen if the type of business specified is a restaurant.

After entering the preliminary information, the inspector walks around the business checking for violations to fire safety codes and local ordinances, recording the condition of safety-related items such as sprinkler systems, extinguishers, signs and emergency lights. The bottom of the screen contains five Notes fields, corresponding to the first inspection, three possible re-inspections and one for any comments. If there are no violations, the inspector types "All Okay" in the first field. If violations are found, he types the details as well as a re-inspection date. The inspector then goes to the next business and repeats the process.

Screens for Recording Inspection Details and Violations

The business owner or landlord is given 30 days to correct any violations. During a re-inspection, all information from the first inspection is already on record; the inspector simply refers to the violation details and verifies that they have been corrected. If everything is in order, he types "All Okay" in the Second Inspection notes field and taps the date field to record the date. He then thanks the owner for his cooperation and says farewell until next year.

New Reporting Capabilities Give Answers In Seconds
At the end of the day, the inspector returns to the office and places the handheld in its cradle next to a desktop PC that contains the master Microsoft Access database of inspection reports. All inspectors feed their handheld reports into this central database, while retaining their own inspections on their handheld as a backup. When inspectors make updates or changes to their inspection records (such as for re-inspections), the new data automatically updates the Access database when the handheld is placed back in its cradle.

In addition to enhanced inspections and access to data in the field, the new system has transformed the Fire Safety Division's reporting capabilities. Using Access, users can conduct data queries on virtually any criteria. "If my Division Chief asks how many buildings with sprinkler systems were inspected in a particular area, I can pull up the answer in a few minutes," Putnam observes. "In the past, the time needed to get that type of information was so great that it probably could never be done."

Another report option is a list of all re-inspections scheduled for the coming month. While this information is available on the iPAQ handheld, the printed report provides inspectors with a quick reference of where they have to go and when. In the past, this information would have to be tracked manually, with far greater risk of errors and omissions.

Putnam points out an additional advantage of the new system: if an inspector is promoted or retires, he can hand over his handheld to his replacement. The new inspector will then be able to start where the old inspector left off, with complete knowledge of inspections that have already been done for the year, and what is outstanding. "People tend to get annoyed if we show up a few months after the last inspection," Putnam adds.

Building a Customized Solution
Initially, the department envisioned using laptop computers for inspection but eventually rejected the idea in part because the units were awkward to use but also because suitable software was not available for capturing the details required by the Springfield Fire Department. One of the main challenges was the need to capture and access data in very specific ways, with electronic forms designed to match the flow of the actual inspection. An expensive software development was not in the cards with tight budgets, especially for experimental projects.

In early 2002 Putnam began investigating handheld solutions, and an Internet search led him to SYWARE's application development tool, Visual CE. He was intrigued because the software allowed handheld database applications to be developed without programming and seemed to be a good fit for commercial inspection. Rather than spend thousands for a full-blown development effort, Putnam developed the application himself for several hundred dollars.

Using the Visual CE software, Putnam created his handheld program by dragging and dropping elements into position on the screen - text fields, boxes, buttons and other features - to create a custom electronic form. An on-screen keypad is used for entering text and numbers. Another useful form element is a box for signatures or drawings, such as a diagram of an inspection site. "People like me who are not database savvy can develop their own programs," says Putnam.

Drop down lists and popup windows allow paper forms to be easily adapted to fit onto the miniature handheld screen, while allowing a level of detail that is awkward or impossible to present on paper forms. The ability to define any desired detail allows inspectors to collect very specific information about a site, with the fields on the electronic form mapped to the central MS Access database. This flexibility allows Putnam to create forms that match the inspectors' data collection needs, as well as put the information to work rather than simply sit in a file cabinet.

Moving Forward
Putnam notes that business owners are often impressed when he pulls out his handheld, as it helps create an image of a technologically advanced fire department. He has been approached by other fire departments looking for ways to work faster and more effectively using handheld PCs. He has a number of ideas where the devices would come in handy. One possibility is hydrant inspections, where they can keep the inspection records on the Pocket PC for later transfer to Access, eliminating the duplication of effort associated with keying in data from paper forms.

Another example involves checking for the presence of hazardous material when responding to an alarm. A Battalion Chief will be able to enter the address of a location where a fire has been reported to see if there are hazardous materials on the property, and if so, the location, type and quantity. Visual CE records can include drawings showing the location of the hazardous material or other useful information. With instant access to this information, the Battalion Chief will be able to notify the fire crew enroute that there's hazardous material on the scene that they'll need to avoid.

"People who are unfamiliar with handheld computers may not realize how easy the devices are to use," Putnam concludes. "They also should know that these units are not toys - the unit I have is as fast as my daughter's desktop PC, and they're only going to get better." Coupled with the right software, that's good news for fire departments and the communities they serve.

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