These days Gilbert’s building inspectors for the most part are doing their jobs faster, cheaper and, most importantly, safer for themselves and the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Development Services Department last fall launched virtual building inspections as a pilot program but the pandemic has fast-tracked that tool to the forefront.
“When COVID-19 hit, I said we need to expand this immediately,” said Larry Taylor, plan review and inspection manager. “I told my inspectors that anywhere where there are people living in a home, additions or remodels, they have to be virtual and not to go into their homes. The owners don’t want us there and we don’t want to be there.”
As of July 8, there were 2,499 positive COVID-19 cases reported for Gilbert ZIP codes – a 44 percent increase over the previous week and more than a 209 percent jump since the beginning of June. Town Council mandated mandatory face masks for a 30-day period beginning June 19.
Taylor said he stole the idea of virtual inspections from Tucson, but when he first heard that city was doing remote inspections he was skeptical.
“I felt how can you see everything in an inspection if you are not in control of the camera,” he recalled.
Then last fall, Taylor attended a class on remote inspections taught by a Las Vegas building official and that finally prompted Taylor to implement the pilot program in Gilbert. At the time, it was to chiefly improve customer service.
Taylor explained that the department was starting to receive requests that required an inspector’s presence at a specific time at a job site.
“With the number of inspections building inspectors do each day, they give a two-hour window,” Taylor said.
With remote inspection, the town is better able to accommodate customers faster.
The pilot program began with small basic electrical inspections, which occur about a half dozen times a week.
The town’s eight inspectors utilize either FaceTime or a Microsoft Teams platform to view a job site and give directions to contractors, who must use a 4G smart phone or tablet for the video call. A flashlight and tape measure are sometimes used as well.
Before entering a building, the contractor must begin with a street view that shows the project’s address.
“The inspector walks them through what they need to see,” Taylor said.
For instance, if an electrical contractor was to change out a 200 AMP electrical box for a 250 AMP one, he would need to do the work on camera for the inspector to see with a utility company technician present, according to Taylor.
“Normally we would put a green sticker on the panel for the utility company and because we are not there, we can’t do it,” Taylor said.
Instead the utility technician is able to see the town building inspector, who shows credentials, talking virtually on FaceTime to the contractor, according to Taylor
“We follow up with a call-in clearance request that it’s OK to energize,” he said. “So, we had to work it out with SRP. We had done that much leg work thankfully and was in a good position when COVID hit to expand the program. There’s been no glitches, its been really smooth.”
The department is now starting to do pool inspections, having reached out to pool companies to start a trial run with them.
Not all inspections can be done virtually. More complex ones are still done in person by the inspectors, who use personal protection equipment and social distancing.
But all inspections in an occupied home and inspections that require an inspector be present at a specific time are done virtually.
Some complex inspections at a home may take inspectors longer to perform than if they were on site, Taylor said.
“Again, with remodels and additions for people living there, we are making it work,” he said. “We would rather be more careful in those cases rather than send an inspector into a home even if it takes longer time than to put someone at risk.”
Although less driving generally would mean fuel savings, that hasn’t been realized yet, Taylor said.
“There’s lot of subdivisions we are doing normal inspections,” he said. “There will always be some inspections where an inspector is on site such as a new-home build. It will never replace all inspections.”
The department is still fine-tuning the process with the intent to continue with virtual inspections post-COVID-19.
“Quite honestly this is an opportunity to see how much we can do and we know not all work well for this,” Taylor said. “We’ve been testing lots of different types of inspections in a trial mode to see what works and what doesn’t.”
Other town departments also have been forced to think outside of the box in order to continue providing service to the public. For example, some employees work from home, hold virtual public meetings like Council does and recruit new hires via phone and virtual formats, according to town spokeswoman Jennifer Harrison.
Additionally, the Office of Digital Government began a texting service for residents and businesses to stay up to date on the latest COVID-19 information, Harrison said. The service has over 10,000 subscribers.
Town officials are taking note of what innovations are working with the intent of continuing the practice – such as with virtual recreation.
The Parks and Recreation Department had to cancel programs and classes during the state lockdown and instead offered virtual class instructions and remote recreation such as a virtual gaming series. Officials found such programs.
Additionally, remote working may help save the town from having to build additional facilities as the town continues to grow.