Third-Party Inspection Reporting: The Ins and Outs
This is a special post from Jill Cotton with Inspection Reports Online.
There’s no question about it: the process of reporting the results from a fire protection system inspection is a pain in the “you-know-what.” The current system and practices around receiving, maintaining, filing and following up on paper-based Inspection Reports is time consuming, disorganized and anything but cost effective. Service Providers (SP), Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) and Property Owners (PO) each have their own system of handling Inspection Reports, and making changes to these systems can introduce significant anxiety. It has become a game of who does what and how.
“As a property owner and management company, we are looking for an efficient program to assist us in tracking and filing all our reports,” said Brian Dolan, Owner of Dolan and Murphy in Aurora, Illinois. “It is important for us because we use multiple Service Providers, have multiple locations and need one ‘place’ to receive everything.”
How can we find such a program and ease the pain and frustration?
Third-Party Reporting (TPR) offers a solution to ease the pain and frustration for each end user: SPs, AHJs and POs. Exploring all options can be a time-consuming process, but with a little planning upfront you’ll be able to make the best use of your valuable time and come to the right decision.
The initial cost to use a TPR System should be zero. If companies are software based, this zero-upfront-cost state may not be possible because Traditional software companies require licensing, upgrade and annual maintenance fees. On top of those fees, the purchase of handheld devices that only read specific software is required.
The most cost-effective TPR companies to work with are those that work with your level of reporting, offer simple solutions such pay-as-you-use options without contract obligations, and that don’t have any particular software or hardware requirements. TPR providers that work in this manner can save a company hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars per year.
While there is a need for internal upgrades to keep up with the changing codes and technological advances, costs can be minimal to none, especially on the AHJ end.
Connections or Associations
There are solution providers, both software- and non-software-based, that either have no specific background in the industry, or are still associated with an actual service company. What are the pros and/or cons to both?
One advantage to using a TPR company that does not have a legacy of affiliation with the fire protection industry is that it most likely offers more than just fire and life safety reports. This allows POs to truly manage many types of reports. But due diligence is required to make sure that these providers offer competitive prices, comply with fire and life safety codes, and are easy to work with on a one-on-one basis.
Using a TPR system that is associated with a service company can be beneficial. Such providers typically already have a large customer base and know the needs of those customers. Their knowledge of the fire and life safety industry typically surpasses that of companies offering similar TPR services. The downside of working with such a company is the chance of its market growing due to its increased access to competitor information and customer bases, as well as new property owners.
TPRs that have backgrounds in the fire and life safety industry, but are no longer connected to or associated with any service companies, should be considered. Such companies should still be actively involved in associations like NFPA and NAFED in order to keep their industry knowledge fresh for the benefit of their users.
Use of Technology
With “cloud computing” becoming increasingly popular, more and more third-party service providers are offering their services online in a strictly web-based manner that allows access from any device with internet access. This model, which works well in the business-to-consumer world, also works for the Fire and Life Safety industry.
There are no special computer skills needed to understand cloud-based systems. For the end users, the sharing ability allows everything to happen through a web interface (website). This type of architecture is already allowing many companies to get away from the traditional reliance on software programs.
“We don’t want a system that is difficult to use or costs us a lot of money,” said Dolan, whose company has in fact adopted a web-based system that allows it to track deficiencies and connects with Service Providers and Authorities without compromising relationships. “We see the benefits of using a web-based system because of the low cost and the effectiveness of receiving and managing our reports. We know in the long run, we can be more productive.”
No matter what type of system is chosen, the key is to make sure that it’s simple and does the job effectively and efficiently. An abundance of bells and whistles may be a sign that costs will increase down the road.
Understand the Three-Way Relationships
Third-party inspection reporting is not a two-way street between Service Provider and PO, or Provider and Authority. This is a three-way journey in which Provider, Owner and Authority are all involved. While some SPs allow POs to jump on their website to view reports and email .pdf forms to AHJs, this still doesn’t solve the issue at hand: everyone still has to print, file, copy and use their own computer’s space to store these reports. Where is the consistency?
A Third-Party Reporting System should connect all three users, making it easy to reach out to one another, view reports, share notes, file and follow up on deficiencies. If reports are interactive, all of the necessary information should be available. Owners should “control” the information based on their company (i.e., location information). Providers should “control” the reporting process and have authority to tag a report for deficiencies, or those that have been cleared, and an Authority should “control” the final outcome.
Relationships are important, especially between Provider and Owner. TPR systems should not come between these relationships by providing opportunities for bids, or allowing any entity to view any information beyond that which has been mutually shared.
There are a number of different ways to determine the effectiveness of a TPR System. Does the system allow me (as an AHJ, SP, or PO) to perform my job more easily, in a more timely and cost effective manner? Do the reports meet the requirements of the local, state and federal codes? Does this system work with its users by offering assistance and value my input about my company’s needs?
There are some simple answers to these key questions: try it, give it time, and see if it’s a fit for your company and/or department. Look for key features such as searching, sorting, creating new reports from previous reports, self-populating fields and the ability to work with your actual TPR Company when seeking answers, updating and using the system in general.
“I am looking for a TPR system that is super easy to learn and use. I expect the data to be kept secure and confidential at all times,” says Thomas Hartel, President of Valley Fire Protection Systems in Batavia, Illinois. “Also, the system should be updated at regular intervals as the applications and needs expand.”
Third-Party Reporting isn’t an especially new concept, but there are fairly new ways of implementing these concepts and programs. Newer companies are taking what has been out there and making it more efficient, easier to use and cost effective while removing the pain of reporting.
TPR is allowing companies to “go green” in some instances by eliminating off-site storage of paper files as well as reducing overhead costs. Effective management of deficiencies increases service call revenue for the Service Providers and reduces customer response time. This is a win-win for all entities. Life Safety issues are addressed and the AHJs are seeing a greater increase in compliance.
“The benefits are numerous,” adds Hartel. “Having a powerful database that is updated at least annually (by location) is beneficial to all parties, including Service Providers, Property Owners, Insurance Companies and Local Government.”
Organizations that rely on updated reports that meet the codes of NFPA or other professional associations will add updates to their sites every three years or as standards change. For some organizations, this is a costly endeavor. In most cases, TPR providers will absorb these costs and make changes as needed. With software-based solutions, additional discs are manufactured and sent to all involved parties, making upgrades expensive.
Jim Woodhill can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org