Fire & Life Safety (Focus On Preparation and Prevention)

Self-Inspection Programs

One of the most common discussions I’ve had over the last year with campus fire-prevention staff was related to successful implementation of selfinspection programs. Most campuses want to start self-inspection programs due to steep declines in budgets and fire prevention staff. Across the U.S. many campus fire inspector positions have been eliminated (one school lost five of 14 fire-prevention positions). As positions were eliminated, the number of square feet on campus and campus expansion into the community increased the need for inspections. This resulted in campuses being unable to complete fire and life-safety inspections. All campus safety administrators will agree; this is a failure to complete a core mission of the 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 campuses are now sending out surveys to be completed by campus departments. 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 accurately, 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 and collect, manage and verify data in a format that doesn’t increase the administrative workload.

The Value of Voluntary

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 selfinspection program is forced in a mandatory format 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 departments — will be better received. Others have highlighted the fact that 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. 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.

Leverage Technology

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-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 (AHJ). 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 and, 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 and automate them for use by individuals you choose, from any device with a connection to the Internet. This greatly reduces the IT commitment needed. 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 campus can be forwarded to risk managers and the AHJ, all with minimal staff time involved. Self-inspections with 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 staff. Not to be overlooked, however, is the benefit of all low- and some medium-risk locations now receiving a basic fire safety evaluation. This lowers life-safety and legal risk for the campus.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of College 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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