A Fresh Set of Eyes

Third-party inspections can bring a new perspective to campus fire and life safety

I was recently approached about the value of fire and life safety inspections by a higher-education campus that is seeing severe budget pressures, staffing shortages and fewer students due to COVID-19. That person was asked by his administration, “Is there really any measurable benefit to building inspections?” This individual replied, “Yes, there is value. They prevent fires from starting, maintain acceptable levels of risk on campus and protect the investment in facilities, as well as keep people safe.” I agreed with him and asked a few follow-up questions.

  • What was the reason for the inquiry?
  • Were they being challenged as to their effectiveness?
  • Was there an effort to refocus resources?
  • Was there a gap in talent to perform inspections?

The last year has made many of us in the field of fire and life safety inspections consider the most important facets of fire safety inspections given limited access, staff shortages and budgetary challenges. The question from the administration was certainly valid and timely. Without a doubt, we know there is value in fire and life safety inspections. They help identify life safety issues, avoid incidents and result in fewer disruptions to the campus.

In 2017, I wrote, “While we may still experience fires even after a recent inspection, the frequency will be significantly lower. What I heard from people who reached out to me was that even though they agreed anecdotally that there are lower incident rates, campuses are terrible at collecting data to show the value of inspections.”

That same person then asked, “If we send the same people out every quarter (or year), won’t they start missing items?” Again, I said yes. It’s still important that we go out and inspect. Staff will be well trained and prepared to identify code violations and unsafe operations. However, we do acknowledge that we tend to miss items the longer we stare at them.

To mitigate the possibility of overlooking items, we can periodically send out a second set of eyes. For many campuses, however, there is no “second set of eyes”—they are just too thin on staff to have a second team.

To solve the issues of fresh eyes, frequency of inspections, collection of data and processing and tracking inspection findings, many campuses are contracting with third-party firms that specialize in fire and life safety inspections, as well as data collection programs.

When looking for outside help, it’s important to find a firm that understands the risks you face; the information you need; and the structure of your organization to receive, track and disseminate information to correct unsafe conditions. These partners must be able to provide suitable software solutions and understand that inspections no longer have to take place in the building. Instead, they can be conducted through remote video.

Your partners must understand:

Complex buildings. Colleges and universities build some of the most complex facilities for research and education. Selecting a firm that understands the impacts of fire, chemical releases, power failures and security system integration with life safety systems is critical. They should be able to work with your team to identify what information is needed from inspections, how the inspection can be accomplished (in-person vs video) and the necessary qualifications for people on your team and theirs.

Consulting team expertise. For complex buildings, you will need to find a consulting firm that can demonstrate expertise with individual system and with systems that are designed to work with each other. Ideally, you will find a firm that has participated in the development of codes and standards related to the systems in your buildings.

Third-party inspection firms will provide a fresh set of eyes for your facility inspections, as well as a level of confidence that facilities and the operations performed within them have been rigorously and objectively inspected. In turn, a third-party review will show a commitment to occupants and authorities that your campus goes to great lengths to ensure fire and life safety.

Outside reviews can also provide the information you need to make decisions that will help achieve code compliance. In many locations, third-party reviews will also reduce the time spent by regulatory authorities conducting reviews on your campus. Lastly, third party inspections can verify that your system maintenance staff is properly servicing life safety systems and, if necessary, provide training to get maintenance of critical systems back on track.

Partnering with third-party inspection firms can demonstrate to your administration a better utilization of funds, staff and resources. You will only spend money when an inspection is needed, and when these inspections are video-based, they can be accomplished in a much shorter time by reducing travel to remote sites. Inspection soft- ware will be able to speed up the collection of data and write the majority of the report for the inspector—again, reducing staff time needed.

Inspection software will also allow you to collect the data you need to show the value of inspections in terms of problems found and, much more importantly, corrected.

This article originally appeared in the July / August 2021 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

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