Tech upgrades among possible Fire Dept. fixes

LAWRENCEVILLE - With fire inspections nearly up to date, officials are getting to the root of problems in the fire marshal's office.

On top of moves to streamline processes and keep better records, officials said they are considering strategies recommended by consultants including an overhaul in technology and recruiting an assistant fire marshal.

Officials discussed the findings during a press conference Thursday.

Earlier this year, the fire chief, fire marshal, and two others were forced to leave the department when an inspector neglected to visit a couple dozen schools over the past five years.

Problems with messy records failing equipment and a lack of scheduling and supervision factored into the debacle, said County Administrator Jock Connell.

But after naming new leaders and inspecting the schools, officials decided to take a deeper look into the efficiencies of the department.

"We needed to make sure we left no stone unturned," he said.

For the past three months, a team with Hammett Consulting reviewed policies, interviewed staff and observed procedures.

Last week the Gwinnett Daily Post received a copy of the report, which has 59 observations and nearly as many recommendations, but officials declined to comment on it until Thursday's press conference.

"It certainly gives us the basic tools," said Ed Knopick, who was named fire marshal in March. "It's important to establish a solid foundation from which we can work from."

Eighteen recommendations involve information technology, including giving field inspectors hand-held wireless devices to send reports from the field to the office. Those devices would cost about $5,000 each for the 14 inspectors, but Fire Chief Rolader said it could add about an hour and a half of work time per inspector, essentially freeing up two or three positions.

Connell said the county is exploring ways to free up money in the 2006 budget to pay for the recommendations. Others would have to wait until next year.

The staff already has begun recruitment procedures to find an assistant fire marshal, which was recommended by the consultants, but other staffing advice may wait until the department tries other efficiency measures, he said.

"The report is a good road map," he said. "We're going to take a look at which are the highest priority."

While most of the recommendations involve internal matters such as training staff on safety issues and open records procedures, Knopick said the public would see some of the changes, especially in terms of interacting with the community.

Businesses will be inspected more frequently based on an at-risk index that prioritizes larger buildings such as malls and mid-rise office buildings. Knopick said that follow-up inspections could be scheduled by computer even before a building is complete.

Also, the fire marshal's office has worked out a schedule with the school system were maintenance workers go into an area of the county shortly after inspectors in order to address the things that aren't in compliance.

In the report, the consultants noted that only 26.7 percent of employees in the office said morale was high. But Rolader said morale has been on the rise since the initial crisis.