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A new hope

The Infrastructure Bill provides states with additional resources to make long overdue infrastructure improvements. Under a program specifically targeting bridges, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) will distribute more than $27.5 billion to states for bridge repairs over the next five years, in addition to a newly-created DoT discretionary bridge program which will provide an additional $12.5 billion for projects through 2026.

Every state will also be able to access newly-funded federal formula highway programs for bridge improvements, including the National Highway Performance Program and the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program, with the total funds of these programs increasing to $59 billion in 2022.

Outside of funding distribution, further hope can be found in newly decreed highway bridge inspection standards, updated and revised for the first time since 2009 by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The standards adopt a “risk-based” approach to prioritize urgent inspections and optimize limited resources. And, both an incrimination of the dire state of highway bridges and a cause to celebrate, the FHWA set forth that highway bridges must now be inspected every 24 months. 

Getting started with digital

Given the enormity of the issue, tackling bridge safety can be daunting at every step – inspection, planning, repair – more so with the number of public and private stakeholders involved. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and a major part of the solution is probably already in your hands.

The recent advance of digital inspection platforms that can be accessed and operated directly from a mobile device represent the cutting edge in the fight against a crumbling infrastructure. Affordable, powerful, and user-friendly digital platforms specifically designed to both collect reliable inspection data can effectively manage inspection programs, regardless of size, sector, or infrastructure issue.

Ready for use out-of-the-box by inspectors, repair teams, and supervisors alike, leading platforms like Fulcrum empower your workforce with customizable digital checklists that define accurate inspections procedures, give everyone access to always-updated, cloud-based information in real-time, and have diverse information-sharing options. 

With these features, digital checklists facilitate both the accurate and consistent collection of pertinent information and its rapid, seamless communication, connecting critical and value-rich inspection data to the right people at the right time – the foundation for a rigorous inspection program necessary for bridge safety.

Digital inspections lead the way

Digital inspection platforms not only serve to prioritize work, but can become the central hub through which you can collect and share relevant data, manage workers, analyze data for better insights, assign and execute tasks, all in a seamless, efficient way that promotes safety. Let's look at some critical areas that digital solutions can bring bridge inspections and safety up to speed and quality.

Bridge triage

With the high number of bridges in disrepair, the crippling inspection backlog, and the lack of visibility into the scope of the problem, prioritizing urgent repairs is an uphill battle – a fight made more difficult when many parts of the inspection process are stuck in antiquated paper-based systems that silo critical information, leaving responsible government bodies unsure of what to do next. 

With bridges – or any other potential safety hazards – the faster and more you know, the better you can respond. Unfortunately, both legacy processes and technology hamper the reliable and quick collection and circulation of information. 

With cloud-based, real-time synchronization of digital platforms, inspection teams instantly share updated data so that it is always available, to all stakeholders, at any stage of the inspection process. This opens communication between field and office, better positioning both sides to identify potential hazards, adapt to any situation, and reliably prioritize inspections with comprehensive, data-driven decisions. This kind of responsive triage is accelerated even further by real-time notifications and automated workflows, so more urgent needs are always rising to the top.

Labor

Individual governments will likely have multiple bridges that require inspections and repairs and will need to either hire new contractors or transfer employees to new departments. However, no matter how many people are working from any number of organizations, a digital inspection platform unites inspectors, repair teams, and management across a shared tool that has everyone working from the same underlying, cloud-connected data. 

What’s more, digital checklists can be tailored with exact SOPs and easy-to-follow dropdown menus so that even new employees can follow specific instructions and never miss an important detail. And with access to shared data, supervisors have greater oversight to monitor inspection progress and check the quality of work – remotely and in real-time – guaranteeing its integrity and ensuring a timely response. 

Information-sharing

With different state and local agencies simultaneously involved in a bridge’s safety and repair, information is too often dispersed across various, disconnected silos – even more so when relying on a paper-based inspection system. But deploying a singular digital inspection platform breaks down jurisdictional information barriers by bringing together all players involved and unleashing the free movement of always-updated data between them.

And when every stakeholder involved in the inspection process – inspection teams, project managers, public officials, repair teams – can access a single digital repository of uniform, reliable, and context-rich data in real-time, information gaps close. 

Sharing data also goes beyond the inspection and repair process. Digital tools let the home office collate all the various inspection data in their jurisdiction, giving them higher visibility to make better decisions along with data sets that can be easily analyzed, parsed, and then submitted to the federal government for grant approval and fund reimbursement. Horizontally or vertically, information flows through a digital platform, where any data segments can be captured and shared in a variety of different reporting formats. 

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Data quality 

Before funds are released for repairs, inspectors need to collect as much reliable data as possible on the structural integrity of bridges so that regulatory bodies can accurately prioritize those bridges that pose an imminent safety threat and allocate resources accordingly.

Collecting evidence for funding triage is stifled, however, when the inspection process is limited to words written on paper – for example, a written description would not easily convey the urgency of extensive structure damage. And while a picture may normally be worth a thousand words, it is worth much more when public safety is on the line. 

Digital inspections platforms allow anyone to upload and attach multimedia files to checklists and inspection records so that a clear and true picture can be painted of the physical condition of a bridge. When inspectors can include photos and videos showing the severity of cracks, exposed rebar, or crumbling concrete, it will be these value-rich and detailed images that persuade regulatory bodies to make funds available.

Daily work

Once repairs are underway, digital inspection platforms streamline workflows to make sure every worker is on task and executing exactly what needs to be done, safely, while still incorporating real-time flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. Here are some of the benefits of digital tools that make this happen:

  • Checklists. As mentioned, checklists can be tailored to specific tasks and populated with SOPs so that everyone on site knows what exact procedures to follow, helping eliminate the individual mistakes that eventually lead up to costly delays and rework. 
  • Task assignment. When everyone works from the same platform uploaded on the device in their pockets, supervisors can monitor overall progress and assign individual tasks on the fly, responding to any situation that comes up.
  • Issue reporting. As repair work unfolds, further safety issues will likely crop up that need to be quickly identified. Even if they aren’t trained as such, on-site workers can assist in ad hoc inspections. For example, leading platforms like Fulcrum incorporate a convenient QR code to report safety issues which are then seamlessly imported into the field inspection database so remediation can begin right away.
  • Safety protocols. As repairs progress, the complexity of bridge repair likely means that safety protocols will change for both workers and the public. Updated safety protocols for each stage can be quickly sent around to all team members to adjust how they are doing their jobs and what measures should be in place to protect public safety. 
  • Efficiency and speed. Bridge work causes significant public inconvenience, putting repair teams under considerable pressure to complete the work as quickly as possible. A digital inspection platform features – shared data updated in real-time, task assignment, visibility and oversight, easy-to-follow checklists, and more – equals a field team directly engaged in streamlined workflows that can get the work done on time and without the need for rework.
  • Back-end data and visibility. Successful bridge triage and repairs are premised on the collection of a wide variety of data points. When digital platforms can quickly merge and parse the totality of data, supervisors gain valuable data-driven insights into how work is being performed and how it can be improved. Data analysis makes visible roadblocks otherwise left unseen, leading to better decisions that optimize workflows. It is this kind of high-level, single-pane visibility – merging inspection data with a wide range of tasks and SOPs, available to all stakeholders – that sets a successful digital platform apart. 

Let’s build this together

With the passing of the momentous Infrastructure Bill, there is an exciting and unique opportunity for state and local governments to finally tackle bridge projects that have been both lingering necessities and public safety threats for decades. 

A digital field inspection platform is the next step forward for responsible agencies, deployable every step of the way and by everyone involved, from on-site workers to budget officers.

Fulcrum has all the tools you need in one platform to fortify the inspection process and make sure you successfully make the case for funding to safely and efficiently perform quality repair work that will last for decades. 

Interested in reading more about how unsafe, structurally unsound bridges became the most visible and problematic infrastructure issue in the United States? Check out the full guide here!

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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