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Platform for progress

28 May 2022

NEW SOFTWARE solutions will drive the fire safety industry to improve and enhance its offer, writes James Elliott. Those who’ve already embraced these advancements are reaping the rewards, while practitioners joining the ‘digital revolution’ are now questioning why they didn’t make the move sooner.

Four years ago, Varciti received a call from a practitioner in the fire and security industry who explained how he was struggling. We arranged to meet for a coffee and a chat. The man arrived with wads of dog-eared papers in hand, a laptop under his arm and a list as long as you like about the pain he was suffering due to a lack of detail on recording (of work), missing sheets of paper, delays and screaming clients. In essence, he wasn’t sure if all items on the life safety services list were being covered and, given ever-changing legislation, worried about liability if something should happen to go wrong.

Having concluded the meeting and thinking about this individual’s issues, further review brought to the fore the fact that this ‘micro’ situation was, in fact, a much wider industry challenge.

Traditionally, we’ve often recorded project details on a piece of paper. We’ve sent it back to the office to be typed up or the engineer has done so and submitted the detail. However, sometimes that detail is lost or not correctly recorded. Perhaps it’s delayed or there’s no true record or ‘time stamp’.

Obvious concerns at a local level here are the wasted time for the engineer, duplication of effort and, with that duplication, errors that can ensue due to ineligible handwriting or coffee stains on the documents. They say time is money, which it is, but in the fire safety environment, time can also cost lives.  With a lack of information, there’s a lack of confirmation on compliance.

That’s bad for the team installing or servicing the equipment, offering them no positive affirmation that they’re protected should something occur. It’s also bad for the users/owners of buildings as they cannot be confident they’re safe. Worse still, they assume they’re safe when the opposite is true.

Directors and ‘Responsible Persons’ are – and should be – asking themselves questions. What’s in my buildings and across my estate? How old is the equipment in use? When is it due for replacement? How much is it going to cost me to replace it? On many occasions, we’ve been told about how individuals are collecting sheets of paper, some of them dating back for years, to then transpose the detail to a master document and, subsequently, realise certain sites are missing or that the data simply doesn’t look right.

What you know

Why are companies still persevering with the ‘old ways’? Simple. It’s often considered easier to carry on with what’s familiar and understood. Change is difficult, or at least considered to be so. The reality is that, if enacted properly, change isn’t so tough, but there’s certainly a need for good processes and management to achieve solid results.

The fire industry creates and maintains processes very well, so implementing a new one should be easy if it’s done correctly. Today’s digital systems mean that data only has to be recorded once. There’s no duplication. The same data can be used in differing ways for efficiency or to create revenue.

Sometimes, we’re told by companies that their engineers will not use an app on the basis that it “adds extra work” for them or that they’re simply not capable of coming to terms with it. Both assertions are myths. Pretty much everyone uses a smart phone these days. What do they hold? Apps. Would you still use a fax machine when e-mail is so much more efficient? Of course not.

In terms of extra work, no-one would disagree that, initially, it might take a bit more time to record the project details in a digital format. However, when engineers then revisit the situation, the time savings are found to be enormous.

Some companies will say: “We have a system or use a number of programmes. We manage and don’t want to overcomplicate matters.” In truth, there’s no overcomplication. The situation is being simplified. Technology is being deployed to enable people to complete processes far more quickly and more accurately and with an improved level of detail. If the ‘traditional’ paper-based systems really worked, the new software providers to the fire industry would not be setting up shop and creating the solutions that they are.

There’s also a view that integration of the new with the old is troublesome. Integration can be tricky and time-consuming, certainly, but if transacted correctly can also be very easy. Just because an existing system doesn’t allow for integration, this doesn’t mean a new solution cannot be implemented or even run alongside the existing system. When the end result of enhanced systems yields so much more, why wouldn’t the extra effort be worthwhile?

On the interface

Most software providers facilitate access to your information via back end portals so that integration between systems is relatively simple. Just ask if they have an Application Programming Interface (API). In essence, this is a software intermediary that allows two applications to talk to each other. Each time you use an app like Facebook, send an instant message to a colleague or check the weather on your smart phone, you’re making use of an API.

Businesses can realise peace of mind and projected cost savings. ‘Going digital’ can provide assurances over data and certification. The fire company’s clients will look at the value being added and realise the scope. Data creates opportunities to save money when it’s reviewed, but without data those opportunities cannot be explored.

Affording businesses relevant information creates a base opportunity and empowers them to make ‘bigger picture’ decisions rather than localised and reactive ones. Being proactive realises something of an edge and, further, allows for a much better budgeting and forecasting solution to be brought forward in the business.

Talking in specific terms, how exactly can software enhance the fire safety industry? With the adoption of new software, the industry will start providing a level of assurance to the public that safety-critical work is being done correctly. 99% of this happens in the background anyway and reassurance should not be needed. However, why not shout about how great a job the industry does? Not everyone fully appreciates how the hidden practises of the sector are maintaining safety. Certificates can be supported by up-to-date detail, with that detail being the exact location of a unit installed and serviced, the date (with a time stamp) on which it was serviced and a confirmation of all completed checks, including the name of the individual signing-off on the work. 

If you’re offered a car certified by an audited 200-point check or one presented by an individual writing ‘I certify this is a good car’ on a piece of paper, which are you going to choose?

Having this detail automated within an application ensures compliance and adherence to processes from which everyone can instantly gain confidence. It could be a check on a fire extinguisher, a fire alarm, dampers or any life safety systems. Applications are available today that easily facilitate these checks and assurances. When businesses want to protect themselves against rogue individuals, this doesn’t make them an overbearing employer. Rather, it renders them a reputable going concern.

All of this is enhanced by the reduction in time due to using an application. The latter enables you to check options on the type of system and completed actions when adding or servicing a device, thereby reducing the time it takes to complete an audit.

Typos and spelling differences can be removed, so too engineer ‘nuances’ when it comes to system naming. This consolidates data into a unified collection and duly increases the ability for individuals to run reports and provide vital analytics on the data.

None of this even touches on the amount of time so frequently lost during the laborious task of transferring data from engineer to office to client. By implementing software, you create a real-time data feedback system whereby everyone can have all of the information they require at their fingertips and when they need it. Any time reduction has the added benefit of delivering profitability in the supply chain or a reduction in costs to the end user.

Data is King

Many commentators would readily support the common belief that ‘Data is King’. That’s true, but those who can use the data and implement it are surely the true Kings. If you have all the data available to you to review, all of a sudden there’s the potential to create a position of power and safety knowing full well that you’ve completed fire safety-related work successfully and, what’s more, that it’s 100% compliant.

Data allows you to create a significant number of reports and review what you have. The phrase: ‘You don’t know what you don’t know’ is so very true. Be it a review of a total cost to service an estate or a budget plan for future fire safety system replacements and enhancements, the mere click of a button delivers all of that detail in one place.

Data also allows the creation of a system of proactive servicing, enabling a fire safety business to quote for work prior to a site visit. This proactiveness engenders a reduction in costs for the supplier and a saving for the client, but more importantly ensures the ongoing safety of systems. The latter will not extend beyond the manufacturer’s recommended lifespan. Should they be needed, everyone will have confidence that the systems will perform as designed and, potentially, save lives.

With the implementation of new software, hardware suppliers are becoming aware of the change and incorporating this into their manufacturing processes, meaning that those who don’t make use of the available applications are at an inherent disadvantage. Ceasefire has started producing fire extinguishers with QR codes on them in preparation for the impending change in the industry.

For their part, today’s clients are now looking to appoint solution suppliers who can deliver the data they need as a direct result of using new software. Their overriding desire is for the data to be made available to them immediately and at a time to suit rather than as and when it can be collected together.

James Elliott is Director of Operations at Varciti (www.varciti.co.uk)