Inspections that used to take six weeks now take one day in Montgomery County and have saved local businesses about $1 million.
In early 2012, Montgomery County shifted the responsibility of conducting fire code inspections for new construction from its Fire and Rescue Service to the Department of Permitting Services. Fire and Rescue Service continues to do fire code inspections for existing buildings.
In those 14 months, the county conducted 2,600 fire inspections and estimates that businesses saved about $1 million because of the more streamlined process.
Diane Schwartz Jones, director of Permitting Services, said DPS has a next-day policy for inspections, and with certified, trained inspectors in the field, it's able to meet that mandate for fire inspections on new construction.
But when Fire and Rescue Service conducted the same inspections, fitting the inspections into the department's existing workload created a delay of up to six weeks.
Fire Chief Richard Bowers, who will retire at the end of April, said the transition to DPS was seamless, and while the two departments continue to work closely on inspections, the change allows the Fire and Rescue Service employees to focus on fire and rescue.
Shifting the inspections to DPS also avoids confusion as to who a contractor should call for the fire inspection, said Hemal Mustafa, manager of the Division of Building Construction.
For existing buildings being altered, demolished or changed in use, the county also has worked to improve its fire code inspection process.
Generally the county allows 30 days to correct a fire code violation. But for violations that might take longer to resolve, the county will also work with a building owner or occupant under a Fire Protection Agreement to correct violations, to set a new deadline.
Jane Redicker, president chief executive officer of the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce said the new system has been great.
“It's about customer service,” Ginanne Italiano, president of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, said of the changes.
Building owners who do not meet their deadlines face a penalty for the fire code violations, but with the Fire Protection Agreement system, the county works with owners to avoid penalties, said Ken Becker of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, D.C.
But the entire system ultimately is about protecting and saving lives, Bowers said.
“It doesn't matter whether you're from the business community, DPS or, obviously, from Fire and Rescue, everybody is in it for life safety because the building has to be built to make sure the people that enter or exit are able to survive any significant event,” Bowers said.