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Information is a wonderful thing, but it’s not always easy to find specifically what you’re looking for. That’s why search engines like Google and Bing are so popular with even minimally proficient computer users. You can find information about any topic you choose just by typing a few key words and having the search engine’s complex algorithms search the worldwide web and return remarkably relevant information.

On the other hand, having a mountain of data without a good search engine is chaotic and far less valuable. It’s like trying to find specific answers by randomly selecting from a massive pile of books in the library parking lot—or looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Fire and building departments likewise generate, acquire, and store mountains of data that pertain to buildings, building permits, occupancies, hazardous materials, contacts, inspection results, schedules, pre-incident plans, invoices, sprinkler and alarm test results, incidents, letters and reports of every conceivable type. Data is not the problem, departments have plenty of data! Searching, sharing and making use of the data is the challenge. The ability to retrieve specific data and produce timely and actionable reports can be time consuming and very costly. For example, departments who are still performing paper-based fire inspections or building inspections have no option but to pour through file drawers of paper each month or each quarter, manually counting inspections, violations of each type based on NFPA or other fire codes, repeat reinspections, past due inspections, and whatever else is deemed important for reporting to the city council, city manager, or the emergency manager. Whereas a paper process may seem like the inexpensive option, it is clearly the most expensive option when you consider the time, inaccuracy, and opportunity cost associated with having limited personnel flipping through thousands of pages and generating manual reports that would otherwise be produced more accurately in seconds.

More and more, software products and technology are making the task of data mining and reporting easier and far less costly. Customer focused software companies are also helping by designing application interfaces that enable their software products to share data with other software products, thus keeping data bases in sync and delivering far greater value to the end user.

With the explosion of inexpensive mobile devices, departments now have the ability to also take their data on the road—or into the field as it were. Mobile software solutions allow building inspectors, code enforcement inspectors, fire inspectors, and sprinkler and alarm technicians to schedule, perform, and deliver faster, better inspections, and then deliver key information on scene to incident commanders and responders to improve fire fighter safety and effectiveness.
Though the haystack gets bigger with every passing day, the ability to mine the haystack for needles and deliver faster, better, less expensive answers improves every day.

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