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Regularly scheduled fire safety inspections performed by trained professionals are necessary to save lives, ensuring that safety processes are followed, and fire safety equipment is functional. Inspecting the working order of components like sprinkler systems, smoke alarms, fire doors, and fire alarms, as well as checking for outdated wiring and insulation hazards, plays an essential role in maintaining building safety and preventing fires.  

Being proactive about fire safety saves lives, but a dangerous backlog of overdue inspections is currently plaguing municipalities across the country, from Seattle to Los Angeles, San Jose to New York. Further exacerbating the backlog is that many fire inspections are performed by fire departments during downtime – no mean feat when there’s a new fire to respond to about every 23 seconds.

First we’ll explore the scope, causes, and consequences of this backlog, then turn to how recent advances in field inspection technology have allowed municipalities and fire departments to lessen the growing inspection backlog and reduce fire risk. 

Background

June 29, 2022, Waterbury, Connecticut: a family of three dies after a fire traps them in their third-floor apartment that hadn't been inspected for fire code violations since 2008, despite a state law requiring all three-family homes be inspected annually.

This is only one recent incident where the fatal consequences of backlogs remind us of the critical need for timely, thorough inspections. This is particularly true in buildings housing multiple people, such as high-rise apartments, where safety doors can become unreliable and sprinkler systems can malfunction without proper maintenance.

Older multi-unit homes are also at greater risk of fatal fires because old homes are rarely retrofitted for fire safety. Faulty wiring, damaged insulation, and malfunctioning safety doors are common in buildings built in the early 1900s and earlier. In addition, although residential building fires cause the most fatalities, places where large groups of people gather – hospitals, theatres, nightclubs, and hotels, to name a few – also require regular, thorough inspections.

Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, firefighter labor shortages, and conflicting priorities (or simply having to drop everything to put out a fire – literally!), fire inspections are often neither proactive nor consistent, creating an inspection backlog. In addition, population growth and the associated increase in multi-unit structures increase the workload, making it difficult for fire safety inspectors to keep up with scheduled inspections.

Exacerbating the backlog, many fire inspectors were reassigned during the COVID pandemic to help assess compliance with health guidelines, with sometimes tragic consequences. In January 2022, a fire killed 17 people in a Bronx apartment complex – a building that was overdue for inspection because the fire safety inspectors had been reassigned to COVID safety site assessments.  While the fire was caused by a malfunctioning space heater that might not have been noted if the inspection had been performed on time, the broken fire doors that did not close properly, allowing the fire to quickly spread almost certainly would have been cited and corrected. 

Fire inspections are often the only way unsafe fire hazards are fixed, particularly for low-income or government-assisted housing. As one Bronx Borough official pointed out, “There is a lack of attention and accountability in addressing long standing violations and a lack of prioritization in investing and conducting necessary repairs to ensure hospitable, safe and adequate housing for our residents.” Fire inspections help expose hazards that no one seems to care about – until a tragedy occurs. 

How Fulcrum helps eliminate fire inspection backlog

To eliminate this dangerous backlog, Fulcrum’s one-stop digital field inspection platform offers speed, real-time data collection, training tools, high-level visibility, and more – everything municipalities need to optimize available resources, prioritize tasks, and perform fire inspections more quickly and efficiently, reducing delays and making sure they happen when and where they are most needed.

Fulcrum’s wealth of features overcomes the challenges that lead directly to fire inspection backlogs, including:

Onboarding.  Municipalities likely need new inspectors to tackle the backlog but, as it stands now, current-day training causes inspection delays, removes critical senior staff from the ground (where they’re most needed), and wastes precious time that could otherwise eliminate backlog. Fulcrum’s digital checklists make it easy to onboard new staff, regardless of their experience. Supervisors can customize checklists for trainees with specific SOPs and use dropdown menus with specific step-by-step instructions to follow. And because inspection data is instantly collected and shared on the cloud, supervisors can follow new inspectors in real-time and ensure standards of quality are met every time.

Speed & efficiency. With Fulcrum, field inspectors can collect, receive, and share valuable real-time inspection data on their mobile devices, reducing time spent travelling to offices to write up reports. Cloud-based, responsive technology means inspectors can also quickly share information on the go and strategize effective and immediate remediation. These tools combine to allow inspectors to focus on completing inspections as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

Information-sharing.  Fulcrum empowers inspection teams across a shared tool where everyone works from the same underlying data. Circulating uniform, reliable, and context-rich data across departments and between teams effectively bridges the information gaps that tend to delay fire inspections. On the external stakeholder side, inspection data can be collated, analyzed, and then shared with anybody, in a variety of different reporting formats, no matter how many property owners or agencies are involved. 

Task and resource prioritization. Access to updated inspection data affords supervisors higher-level visibility to efficiently manage and prioritize fire inspection tasks, resources, and staff. Supervisors can easily and quickly view, organize, assign, schedule, and track any number of inspections when, or even before, they are due – all in real-time, so they can also change priorities on the fly as conditions change. This visibility is expanded across dashboards which can segment and consolidate inspection issue information by geography (or other variables) to better understand high risk areas, identify low performers, and prioritize schedule information. 

Location information. Fulcrum’s digital platform supports inspection management by providing location data to create a clear visual map of required inspections. This tool optimizes route planning, allowing inspectors to reach addresses overdue for inspection as quickly as possible. The platform also provides proof of inspection, complete with inspection location, date, and timestamp, highlighting key components of Fulcrum’s digital inspection platform:  better data, faster speed, higher visibility. 

Fire (go) away!

The large number of overdue fire safety inspections, coupled with insufficient resources to catch up on the backlog, has already cost lives. And in a struggling economy, the growing backlog is poised to get worse if municipalities look to cut more costs through staff reduction or attrition. 

Fulcrum’s intelligent platform is uniquely geared towards field inspection management, affordably armed with the tools needed to eliminate overdue fire inspections. Simple onboarding, training and inspection tools allow more inspectors to be in the field performing inspections and collecting better, value-added data that supervisors can use to prioritize resources across their mandate. 

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About the author

Fulcrum is a field inspection management platform built to streamline safety and quality processes, field operations, and asset inspections, especially for mobile teams.

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