Getting permit data remotely

A North Carolina county's building inspectors will be able to use a wireless system to get data in the field.

Buncombe County, N.C., officials chose Accela Wireless for its Building Permits and Inspections Department. Inspection teams will remotely retrieve permit-related data from the agency's database via wireless tablet PCs or handheld computers. Also, teams can input and upload inspection results from the field to the agency database in real time. The application offers an off-line mode, which saves updates to the inspector's mobile device for uploading later.

Accela's software cost Buncombe County about $65,000.

County officials inspect buildings for safety concerns and administer permits for the region's unincorporated areas, including homes and workplaces of Buncombe County and the towns of Biltmore Forest, Weaverville and Woodfin.

Wireless access to data lets county officials increase the number of inspections per day, according to Accela officials. The technology increases manpower by one person for every eight inspectors, said Maury Blackman, Accela's vice president of sales and marketing.

Training inspectors to do things differently presents the main challenge, he said. "Some of these guys have been doing this for 20, 25 years on pen and paper and this device has a funny-looking pen," he said.

Another problem is location. Buncombe rests in the mountains of western North Carolina -- not a good place for wireless communication, county officials said. "The tree canopy is dense, and you can be out in the corners of the county and not reachable," said Kathy Brady, Buncombe's systems analyst for the project.

Officials will try two methods to ease the problem and see which is more successful, she said. Law enforcement agencies have an emergency communication system that uses a modem and communication towers through which they access the county network. But that system might be slow, Brady said, so Buncombe will also try wireless cards, such as Sprint cards. "It's always roaming," she said. "As soon as it can make a connection, it will transfer the data."

Accela officials see more local governments using wireless technology. Inspectors for Miami's Dade County Fire Department use an Accela system to retrieve data on code violations. And many law enforcement agencies now use wireless systems. "It's irritating that they can issue you a ticket so quickly," Blackman said.

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