Author(s): Jim Muir. Published on May 1, 2017.

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How a building inspection department short on time, resources, and manpower utilized remote video inspection to meet customer demand.

BY JIM MUIR

Lucille Ball once said, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.” I would suggest a corollary: “If you’re having a hard time getting it done, look for a more creative way to do it.”

NFPA Conference Session
NFPA Conference & Expo, Boston, June 4-7, 2017

Remote Video Inspections: Guidelines for Effective Use
Tuesday, June 6, 9:30–10:30 a.m.

Jim Muir, Clark County (Washington) Building Safety; Ray Bizal, NFPA

As the country emerged from the recession several years back, those of us responsible for building safety in Clark County, Washington—located just across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon—felt the same pressures as many jurisdictions. We experienced a spike in projects that we had to meet with a reduced staff size. The job market for trained code professionals was highly competitive, and as we worked to attract qualified people to join us, building industry and public officials were putting out the call for departments like ours to help contribute to the recovery.

As chief building official in the county’s Community Development department, the question I faced was how we were going to get all this work done while trying to hire and train new staff and providing a decent level of service to the community. The simple answer was to do more, but there was only so much we could be expected to accomplish, even with a great staff as a foundation.

One thing we had going for us was experience with technology. In 2003, inspectors began using an interactive voice response (IVR) inspection system, which allowed them to use their mobile phones to choose menus and make selections to access permits and inspection results. In 2006, we outfitted laptops and printers into all of the inspectors’ vehicles and worked with our IVR vendor to create a mobile version of our permitting system. Inspectors were equipped with iPhones by 2010, and electronic versions of the code were included on everyone’s mobile devices. This familiarity with technology afforded the staff a better relationship with change and a bit more comfort with possibilities to come.

With the large geographic size of our jurisdiction and the heavy inspection workload, most reinspections for corrections could not be conducted on the same day as the original inspection, and had to be scheduled for the next inspection day. That meant builders had to wait, homeowners doing their own projects could lose another day away from work, and the building safety staff had another inspection on its route, regardless of the complexity of the correction. This also presented a challenge for customers scheduling subcontractors in an ever-busier building market. Smaller geographic jurisdictions with a lighter workload might be able to get back to the job the same day and complete an inspection or reinspection and allow the work to continue, but we did not have that ability. This is the way things had to be in order to provide our services, unless we could figure out a better solution.

Then it occurred to me that we had iPhones and iPads equipped with Apple’s video chat feature, Facetime, which we had used to communicate with each other and view job challenges that we wanted to discuss. If this worked for our needs, why couldn’t we use it for some of our inspection interactions with customers? For customers who didn’t have Apple devices, why couldn’t we just load Skype, the video conferencing application, onto our devices so we communicate in this fashion with anyone?

Managing the process

There was a bit of resistance from the staff when the idea was first floated to use video chat as part of our inspection process. It was rare for us to accept photos for any inspection compliance, since the pictures were taken only from the perspective—and perhaps bias—of the photographer, and initially that skepticism extended to video inspections as well. There was a crucial difference, though: with video inspections, it was the inspectors who could direct what they needed to see—we still managed the process.

As we discussed the idea, we decided to limit video inspections to reinspections, typically with only a few correction items, and inspections for “noncomplex” work, especially tasks that homeowners might undertake themselves, such as footings for deck posts, small steps and rails, and insulation. The contractor or homeowner would contact our office staff or an inspector to discuss the work and whether it was suitable for a video inspection. If the inspector agreed, a time is arranged to connect via Skype or Facetime. In 2013, we launched what we called the “Sherlook” video inspections.


Watch a video of a remote video inspection taking place in Clark County, Washington.

The more video inspections we’ve conducted, the more comfortable inspectors and customers have become with them. There have been a few requests where the work was far too detailed to review using video; one request, for a framing inspection of an entire home, would probably have taken three times longer to do using video than it did by simply going out and doing it live. Inspectors assumed we would have folks trying to game the system somehow, such as by showing us work at another location or by trying to avoid showing us everything, but overall we’ve found that customers have been great to work with—they realize the process can save them valuable time. One customer was tech-adverse and was still using a flip phone, but once he saw our video inspection program in action, he went out and got a smartphone so he could take advantage of the time savings.

I will be sharing all of this and more at the upcoming NFPA conference, where the Building Code Development Committee, of which I'm a member, will present a white paper and a panel discussion on video chat inspections.

In March, I sent out an informal survey on video inspections through discussion boards for building officials in Washington and Oregon; I was curious if other jurisdictions were doing anything similar or if they had suggestions for improving the process. Many of the inspectors who responded to the survey had the same misgivings that were voiced in my department: video inspections could be gamed like photos and weren’t necessarily reliable. The inspectors’ comments indicated that some felt they were giving up too much management of the process, and that a video inspection wasn’t a true inspection. At the same time, the survey asked building officials if they would consider using video chat inspections in jurisdictions that needed such a tool, and almost all of the more than 40 respondents said they would consider them. A couple mentioned that they were even looking at apps or services currently available that are specifically designed for video inspections. I hope more jurisdictions will consider these creative and useful tools.

An important element of the Sherlook program was clearly defining the parameters for when it could be used. We wanted the inspections to improve customer service while also being efficient and practical. In the survey, this was another area where building officials questioned the quality of inspections conducted with the help of video. To that point, the tool needs to fit the job; it would not be efficient or effective to do most inspections this way, but it could work for many of the inspections that were frustrating our customers. What I would stress to skeptical building officials is that the inspector manages the video inspection and makes the decision on when it’s appropriate to use. We have used video inspection for some components of almost every classification of inspection. Missing framing clips, inappropriate plumbing fittings, insufficient nailing, problems with duct supports, and insulation installation requiring corrections are just a few of the many types of problems we’ve surveyed with the help of video inspections.

At the same time we initiated Sherlook, we also launched a program called TikTok, which allows homeowners to schedule inspection appointments to limit the time they need to wait for an inspector. Like Sherlook, the customer calls the office or the inspector to set up an appointment that works for them and for the inspector. The two programs are not related, but both address customer service by providing other options to the standard service. One result of these efforts is that our stakeholders, including county leadership, sees our efforts related to video inspections as positives, both from a service and an innovation perspective. I can’t think of any of us who couldn’t benefit from improving the perspective of our stakeholders.

Innovation, progress, and zombies

We continue to pursue ways to build on our service and innovation. In March, we conducted our first drone inspections, for a roofing inspection and a site inspection. We realized that we are limited by the roof height or terrain in these types of inspections, and it occurred to me that if companies like Amazon can deliver a package with a drone then we ought to be able to do an inspection. One of our inspectors knew that a local contractor had recently gotten into drones as a hobby, and he was eager to meet our entire inspection team in the field and pilot the drone while we took turns viewing the screen. The images captured by the drone’s cameras were amazingly clear. We are going to send a couple of inspectors to get their “pilot’s” certification and then decide on which equipment to purchase. We think we will be able to conduct much more thorough inspections of certain kinds of projects using a drone, and we may even find other inspections that could be better done with a drone.

We’ve also launched efforts that complement our video inspections. We realized homeowners often didn’t know much about the systems and functionality of their homes, including many aspects related to safety, so we created a homeowner’s manual covering topics from emergency services to how to change a furnace filter. We leave a copy of the manual at every new home or addition project at final inspection. Additionally, for the last several years we’ve provided code books and standards to any contractor who needs one, free of charge. Other jurisdictions have asked why we don’t just make contractors buy their own copies, but this way I can diffuse the usual excuses around not being aware of the code; I can go back to a contractor and say, “It’s in the code book we gave you.” We also purchase and give homeowners who are doing projects a code guide that includes common code requirements and illustrations. We have had more than one homeowner tell us it not only helped them with a project, but it reduced the stress associated with being unfamiliar with the code and wondering if an inspector would make them tear out work because it didn’t meet code requirements.

As a routinely used tool, the Sherlook program continues to be a valuable asset for us, and we continue to remind customers of its availability and efficiencies. Construction is booming and we continue to hire, which can present its own challenges. To appeal to young people considering careers as code professionals, we created a six-page comic book that features zombies pursuing other career paths. We give prospective candidates rubber stress-relief zombies with our logo on them just to make sure they remember us.

I hope Lucille Ball would be proud of us: busy people being creative, trying to get stuff done.

JIM MUIR is the top building official in Clark County, Washington. Top Photograph: Adrienne Albrecht