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Are You Seeing This?

Are You Seeing This?

Thanks to coronavirus, remote video inspection has gone from a seldom-used approach to the next big thing in building life safety

BY JESSE ROMAN

On March 23, about a week after West Hartford, Connecticut, closed its town hall and instructed its municipal employees to work remotely, Tim Mikloiche, the town’s supervisor of building inspections, sat at home squinting at an iPad screen. His building department’s grand experiment was about to begin.

Miles away, a contractor working on a kitchen remodel opened a video chat app and held his phone aloft. Images of a torn-up kitchen began bouncing around on Mikloiche’s screen. According to the project plans, the remodel was to be solely cosmetic—but Mikloiche saw something else. “As we were starting the inspection, the first thing I noticed on the screen was something that looked like a piece of engineered lumber,” Mikloiche recalled. The contractor told Mikloiche that there had been a last-minute “minor” change and that he’d ended up moving a weight-bearing wall. “Not only is that not in the plan, that is structural,” Mikloiche told the contractor. “We need the specifications, and we need to make sure that lumber can handle the load.”

In that moment, West Hartford’s very first remote video inspection became a failed inspection. But the experiment itself was anything but a failure—it was a much-needed proof of concept. “I was hopeful before, but I became a lot more hopeful in that moment,” Mikloiche said.

Since the novel coronavirus started spreading across the globe earlier this year, the safety inspection sector, like so many other industries, has been forced to rethink how to operate in a vastly changed landscape. Widespread lockdowns have forced some inspectors away from job sites, threatening to drastically slow the permitting for construction projects large and small. “In the middle of the shutdown, I was hearing a lot of ‘What are we going to do? How can we keep things going?’” said Nicole Comeau, a segment director at NFPA who keeps close tabs on the inspection industry.

The answer for many building departments has been remote video inspection, or RVI, an idea that has been around for nearly a decade but that, for an array of reasons, has had few converts until now. For inspectors used to running their hands over joints, and seeing the welds, connections, and wires with their own eyes, the new hands-off approach has been a learning curve but one that has also shown promise. Departments that have tried RVI report some unexpected increases in efficiencies, added safety, and in some cases even better visual access to a project than a traditional in-person approach can provide, advocates say.

Prior to the pandemic, Mikloiche didn’t think remote inspections were something his department would do. “It’s not that I’m a dinosaur, but I’ve been around 20 years as an electrical inspector and was kind of intimidated by the technology—and besides, my average inspector is 60 years old,” he said. Then the virus hit, and RVI got his attention. He now counts himself a convert, and he’s not alone: as of late May, West Hartford’s five full-time inspectors have completed more than 600 RVIs. Mikloiche notes that the department has the same inspection fail rate, about 8 percent, with RVI as it had with its in-person inspections before coronavirus hit, indicating that the switch hasn’t adversely affected inspection quality.

Despite its rapid implementation in many jurisdictions in response to coronavirus, building officials and industry followers are convinced that RVI is here to stay and perhaps become more popular when things return to normal. “I’ve definitely changed my opinion,” Mikloiche said. “After we hit our 100th remote inspection and everyone on the team had done 10 to 15 each, I said, ‘You know, this is something we’re going to be using for a long time. This is a new world, and we need to embrace it.’”

OVERCOMING STIGMAS
While it’s impossible to nail down exactly how many building departments have implemented RVI programs since the pandemic struck, the anecdotal evidence suggests that interest has swelled dramatically. An NFPA tip sheet for inspectors looking to start RVI programs has been downloaded hundreds of times since March, and a 2018 NFPA white paper on the topic, “Conducting Remote Video Inspections,” has been downloaded more in the last three months than it was over the previous year and a half. Both can be found at nfpa.org/rvi.

Meanwhile, a technical committee has been formed for a proposed new standard, NFPA 915, Standard on Remote Inspections. The NFPA Standards Council has yet to decide whether to start the proposed document by initiating a formal cycle and beginning the work to create a first draft. Thus far, the idea of a new standard on remote video inspections has received largely positive public support, and if allowed to move forward, a first draft could be available for public comment later this year.

The sudden attention being paid to RVI after years on the industry’s fringes has been encouraging to Jim Muir, the top building official Clark County, Washington, and chair of the NFPA 915 technical committee. Muir helped pioneer RVI when he implemented it in his sprawling county back in 2012 as a way of increasing the efficiency of his small and overworked staff. Since then, he’s been an evangelist of sorts for the practice, presenting on RVI at numerous industry events around the country, usually to curious but skeptical audiences. “People generally say, ‘That’s kind of neat,’ but nobody ever starts doing it,” he said with a wry smile.

The biggest roadblock, he said, has been the lingering perception among inspectors that an inspection over a screen can’t possibly be as effective as one conducted in person. Some also fear that RVI could devalue the inspection process in the eyes of contractors and the public. “There was worry that people will think, ‘How important can this job be if the person doesn’t even need to go to the job site?’” Comeau said. “That can lead to, ‘Well, does it even need to be done?’”

Those reservations still exist in some quarters. “The word ‘remote’ followed by the word ‘inspection’ are two completely different entities,” wrote a fire prevention officer in California, responding to an NFPA call for public input on the idea of creating a new RVI standard. “By not doing a physical inspection with your eyes and boots on the ground, you will have no idea of any potential life-altering issues that you could be missing by relying on a ‘remote’ piece of paper, video, or data submission.”


Remote video inspections can mean a relatively low-tech video chat, or using a drone to inspect rooftops or other hard to reach places. GETTY

Over the past two months, however, it seems that those stigmas have been overcome in many jurisdictions by the need to continue working despite ongoing lockdowns. Muir’s phone has been ringing nonstop. “It’s been a lot of calls like, ‘Hey, you brought up in that one meeting that video thing you do. Can you tell me a little bit more about what do you guys do exactly?’” he said.

SURPRISING RESULTS
Although there are some high-tech examples of remote inspection—such as camera-mounted drones being used to remotely inspect sites that are difficult to access, or film crews shooting construction projects for inspectors in Abu Dhabi—RVI has largely evolved into a practice that can be done with the everyday technology most people carry in their pockets. In its simplest form, inspectors conduct safety checks over a phone, computer, or tablet screen from their home or office, while a contractor or homeowner onsite shows them what they need to see.

Today, Clark County conducts about 50 remote inspections each day—about a third of its overall total—a number that has shot up since the pandemic. Even when the lockdowns end, Muir expects that between 15 percent and 20 percent of the department’s inspections to continue to be via remote video.

Both Muir and Mikloiche acknowledge, however, that remote inspection isn’t suited for every job—inspections of complicated wiring arrangements or large framing projects, for example, are often best done in person. The most common use for RVI so far seems to be for simple reinspections, when an inspector goes back to a job site after a failed inspection to make sure the contractor has completed the missing or incorrect work.

“Say you do a deck inspection and they’re missing a handrail,” Mikloiche said. “Instead of sending an inspector all the way back there when the handrail is done, they can show us over the phone—no need to take a vehicle out again, or waste time driving to the site.” In larger counties, especially in the Western United States, this can save hours of driving per day for what is ostensibly a 10-minute job.

West Hartford has also used RVI for certain electrical inspections, which will likely continue after the pandemic, Mikloiche said. Not only is the camera zoom useful for seeing small, hard-to-see parts of an electrical box, but in some instances it can also be safer. “Where we’re worried about arc flash hazards and exposures to inspectors, with RVI we can have the onsite electrical technicians take panel covers off and wear their PPE and the inspector can look at the service from the safety of their office,” he said. During these and other RVI inspections, the building department can also easily snap screen shots, or record the visuals of the conversation and file them away for future reference.

Muir has uncovered other novel uses for RVI. Clark County, for instance, has implemented a DIY program, where homeowners looking to do simple jobs themselves can call an inspector and ask them to take a quick look over the phone at what’s being done while the job is still in progress. “They might have a bunch of plumbing all laid out, and they just want to check if it’s going to pass or if they might have an issue,” Muir said. “The inspector is able to do that via a remote inspection and actually instruct the homeowner and get them to a better place than they might get to on their own. It saves them from having to take it all apart and do it again, and it’s much easier for us to advise them along the way than to make several trips out there where they’re taking things apart and putting them back correctly.”

Perhaps the biggest surprises for new users of RVI have been some of the unexpected ancillary benefits that few, if any, building departments even considered before they tried it. The inherent remoteness of RVI has actually had a positive effect on his inspectors’ work, Mikloiche believes. “What I think happens to a lot of inspectors, including me, is we kind of get complacent in our function. We go out to do an inspection and we look around at everything but we’re really not seeing it as closely as maybe we should,” he said. “But when you’re looking at it through a phone it almost forces you to see things closer and with a lot more detail, because you want to make sure you’re looking at everything. You can zoom in close and see the inside of an electrical box. I’ve caught boxes missing screws, and other things that can be easily missed” in an in-person inspection.

The arrangement has also had the unintended consequence of compelling inspectors to work more closely with their partners, like contractors, who have become, by necessity, a key part of the inspection process, rather than just passive onlookers.

“This is supposition, but if you’re a contractor on a job site, and the inspector is walking through, you’re not really engaged in that,” Comeau said. “All you’re thinking is, ‘Did I pass or not pass?’ You’re not looking at every little thing. But, if you are actually in some way conducting the inspection yourself, alongside the inspector, and you’re engaged and asking questions, I do think it’s probably going to raise the level of understanding for the person on that end of the phone, which could potentially increase the number of inspections passed. That makes everybody more efficient and lets everybody get to the next job faster.”


A contractor holds his phone up so that inspector Jim Muir can inspect a door hinge. JIM MUIR

FUTURE GROWTH
For these reasons and others, observers expect RVI to increase in coming years. Despite the recent uptick, there is still plenty of room to grow; a survey of 1,000 building officials across the US conducted in late March by the International Code Council found that, while 63 percent of inspection agencies had transitioned at least some employees to remote work, more than 60 percent reported that they do not have the capability to do remote inspections.

Anecdotally, departments that are using RVI cover a wide spectrum—from those who have formally adopted a program, like West Hartford, to those that have used RVI as a temporary stopgap during the pandemic. “That might be something like, ‘Just send me a picture of it now and when the shutdown is done, I will come back and actually see it,’” said Kevin Carr, a senior specialist at NFPA and staff liaison to the proposed NFPA 915. “I’d say in a lot of ways it’s still a Wild West type of mentality—people are taking many different approaches.”

As the ICC survey indicates, many other groups still seem hesitant to dip their toes in the water. Many are asking basic question about remote inspection, and whether it’s something they can do or something they could bring to their authorities having jurisdiction. “There’s a lot of feeling out going on,” Carr said. “But the interest is there and people want to learn about it. The question is, what happens after the pandemic? What kind of guidance will exist going forward to make sure nothing falls through the cracks?”

One answer could be the proposed NFPA 915, which is being developed by a technical committee, led by Muir, whose members represent a range of inspectional disciplines from around the world. If accepted by the Standards Council, the document could provide guidance about the basics of remote inspections: how to do it, who should be involved, the equipment and technology used, and methods for obtaining and documenting data. A guiding tenet of the proposed document would likely be that all remote inspections must be equivalent to, or exceed, a traditional inspection, Carr said.

Guidance from NFPA could pave the way for many other building departments to adopt RVI as part of their regular operations, Muir said. “It gives building officials a starting point as well as something to bring to their elected officials, which is much cleaner than the building department person just saying, ‘We’d like to do video inspections, wish us the best, and hopefully we don’t go out of bounds anywhere,’” he said. “With a standard, there is a level playing field so that everyone involved can understand what they’re undertaking and what they’re authorizing.”

New technologies are expected to push RVI even further in the near future, Muir said. These include sophisticated building scanners that can give remote inspectors detailed schematics; virtual and augmented reality programs that could allow inspectors to see enhanced information on screen during inspections; and even inspection-specific video apps that link with code documents and checklists and sync with departmental files to keep a record of the inspection and the result. Sections of the proposed NFPA 915 were purposely left empty for this reason, waiting to be filled by this envisioned technology that has yet to take root. “It seems to me that the landscape is going to change so quickly that, by the time the 915 technical committee gets around to meeting again, there could be things in use that we couldn’t have even foreseen just a year ago,” Carr said.

All of it suggests that RVI is on track to become much more than a curiosity, and possibly even the industry norm for a range of inspection types in the not-too-distant future. It will also almost certainly outlive the pandemic that launched its mainstream ascent.

“We’ve seen many industries and areas where the pandemic has caused workers to do things differently in the moment, but it hasn’t really changed the practice in a lasting way,” Comeau said. “That is not the case here. I think remote inspection is an example of something where the future of inspections has completely changed because of these conditions.”

 

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal.

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