Fire & Life Safety

Self-Inspection Programs

One of the most common discussions I’ve had over the last year with district fire prevention staff was related successful implementation for self-inspection programs. Most districts want to start self -inspection programs due to steep declines in budgets and fire safety staff. As positions were eliminated, the number of square feet in the district has increased as has the need for inspections. This resulted in districts being unable to complete fire and life safety inspections. All districts will agree that this is a failure to complete a core mission of the safety program. Basically, the sum of fire prevention program responsibilities has grown to proportions beyond the ability of limited staff.

In response to these shortfalls, many districts are now sending out surveys to be completed by individuals located in each school. Others are considering this approach. Locations currently sending out surveys are now struggling with accuracy and data management. Locations that are still considering self-inspections are looking at ways to improve accuracy and data management issues before it becomes a problem. Both groups are rethinking the conventional business of safety inspections and focusing on accomplishing inspections in non-traditional ways.

Placing the burden of inspections onto building occupants creates several challenges. There is a need to write the surveys correctly, train people and provide the material they need to quickly determine how to correctly review the space (these components will be left for a future article). There is also a need to convince building managers to complete the survey, collect, manage and verify data in a format that doesn’t increase the administrative workload.

To gain acceptance, self-inspection programs should rely on a voluntary model. Mandatory self-inspection models have a lower success rate versus voluntary programs with incentives. If a self-inspection program is mandatory, there will be greater resistance. A public relations campaign that promotes the benefits of a voluntary program, such as minimizing needs for additional staff thus allowing more funding for school-based programs will be better received. Others have highlighted the fact there will be less disruption to building operations when the self-inspection is completed internally. Gaining support will increase the completion rate, resulting in less need for follow up. This will allow more time for validation checks. The importance of validation checks cannot be overstated. Validation checks will lead to a significant increase on the accuracy of self-inspections and the rate of compliance. We have seen 96 percent compliance rates when validation measures are announced and implemented. With a 96 percent compliance rate, most validation rates can be lower than 10 percent. When measured against traditional fire department self-inspection programs this is less than half of the average 20 percent validation inspection rate.

Self-inspection programs will rely heavily on technology to gather data, analyze the results and quickly generate automated reports identifying deficiencies. Even though self-inspection programs focus on low- and medium-risk occupancies, there is a legal responsibility to resolve code violations in a timely manner.

Many locations must also report self-inspections to an “authority having jurisdiction.” This too can be automated, further increasing the value of the technology platform chosen for collection and analysis of data. Self-inspection programs are being implemented because of a reduction in staff availability, it is highly unlikely that additional staffing will be made available to enter data or create reports. In reality, staffing is not needed. This can be accomplished with automated self-inspection reports. There are programs on the market that can use your departments’ self-inspection forms, automate them for use by individuals you identify, on any device with a connection to the Internet. This greatly reduces the IT commitment needed to implement many self-inspection programs. These programs can also send deficiency reports to the proper department or individual for quick correction, and once completed, the report for a building or the entire district can be forwarded to risk managers and the “authority having jurisdiction,” all with minimal staff time involved in the inspection or creation of the report. Self-inspections finding no deficiencies require no staff time at all.

Certainly, one of the biggest benefits of a self-inspection program is the advantage related to reducing demands on already possibly overworked staff. Not to be overlooked, however, is the benefit that some of the low- and medium-risk locations now receiving a basic fire safety evaluation were not being inspected before. These inspections lower life-safety and legal risk for the district.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Mike Halligan is the President of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after twenty six years as the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He frequently speaks and is a recognized expert on residence hall/student housing fire safety and large scale special event planning. He also works with corporate clients to integrate products into the campus environment that promote safety and security.

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