Electronic Review Considerations
If you are an employee or supervisor of a reviewing agency and are thinking about going to electronic review (and you should be), there are some things that need to be taken into account. Following are things I have experienced that will help you avoid potential problems.
The Submittal Procedure
A few years ago some guy called me and said he could set up an electronic reviewing system for me for an initial fee of $35,000 and a yearly maintenance fee of $5,000. That is absolutely ridiculous, and that’s what I told him. It costs very little to develop an electronic plan reviewing system. All you need to do is have the submitters send you the design documents as email attachments (PDF or DWF drawings, vender catalog cuts, calculations, specifications, etc.). You provide a one-page instruction sheet on your (the reviewing agency’s) Web page that tells the submitter exactly what you want, and the submitter just emails the data to you. When you receive the design documents, you simply drag or extract the data from the submitter’s email and put everything in an electronic project file. You can do that right on your desktop. Now, you open up the file and start reviewing the documents, with your plan review program you mark up the drawings and affix an acceptance stamp, and with your word processing program you compose a review letter with review comments (if needed). Then you simply email the accepted drawings and the review letter to the submitter. It’s that simple.
Do Not Hire Some Outside Firm
You’ll most likely end up with a fiasco that will do virtually nothing but cause severe frustration for the designers and the reviewers as well. Your email account, your word processing program and a plan review program (that can be downloaded for free from the internet) plus good hardware are all you need to handle electronic plan review. You do not need an outside consultant.
Learning to Use the Software
As a design engineer, I’ve worked with and supervised CADD operators for over 20 years, but I’m not a CADD operator myself, so when I first moved to Wyoming I called a CADD software rep in Denver and asked if they would send someone to Cheyenne to train me to use the plan review software. He said, “We would be happy to do that (for a price of course), but training isn’t necessary, because the plan review software is so easy to use.” He was right. After I downloaded the plan review program from the Internet, I played around with it for just a few hours and was ready to start marking up drawings. There’s nothing to it. Importantly, the reviewers must do it themselves. It’s like driving a car. You can spend months in driver education classrooms, but the only way to learn to drive a car is to get behind the wheel and start driving. The best and quickest way to learn how to work the software is to just start using it. All it takes is a little practice. Here again, it’s a waste of time and money to employ an outside consultant to teach you how to perform electronic plan review. It’s a lot easier than you think.
Avoid Over Complication
Use only off-the-shelf programs. Computer programmers are notorious for trying to justify their existence by developing programs that are way over complicated. You do not need a computer programmer to write a plan review program or any other program for that matter. As far as you are concerned, computer programmers are obsolete. All the programs you need have already been written and are being improved and upgraded continuously. Bill Gates and numerous other software entrepreneurs have already seen to that. As I previously stated, an excellent review program can be downloaded for free from the most reputable CADD software producer in the country. This is also true for all other programs you might need. Being an engineer, unlike most reviewers, I run my own computer calculations (sprinkler hydraulic calculations, voltage drop calculations, etc.). The calculation programs that I use, I downloaded from the internet for little or no cost. The electronic filing system (described in the following paragraph), can be set up with programs that you most likely already have. Everything you need for electronic review is already available from various software developers. There is no need to hire a computer programmer to “reinvent the wheel.”
A well-organized electronic filing system is very important with electronic review. I was fortunate that the fire marshal assigned me an excellent administrative assistant to help me set up the computer filing system to keep track of the work. She’s not a reviewer but is familiar with the review process and seemed to know exactly what I needed. She is also very computer literate. She first set up a spread sheet and called it the “Plan Review Master Schedule.” When a project comes in over the Internet, all I have to do is fill in the blanks on a line item in the master schedule and I have all the information I need to keep track of the review work from start to finish. Then she set up a file for each county in Wyoming. Once the review is complete, I move the project file to its county file. This gives me an excellent and simple way to access any project file very quickly. Then she included an archive file and schedule in a very similar way, so when the construction is complete I can very easily move the project files to an archive database. Other reviewing agencies do things differently I’m sure, but with the electronic reviewing methods it’s imperative that you spend some time working up a good and practical electronic filing system. This should be arranged to allow you quick and easy access to the project files. I get calls all the time from inspectors, contractors and designers wanting to talk about a project that I have reviewed. The electronic filing system is so easy to use that I can immediately call up the drawings, the review letter and other review documents on my computer and refer to them while I’m on the phone. All the while I’m sitting at my desk with everything at my fingertips. It’s much easier than putting the caller on hold while I have to search through file cabinets for paper documents and paper drawings that have to be spread out on a drafting board. I don’t even have a drafting board. My telephone, computer work station and electronic filing system are all I need. This is another excellent example of the advantages of electronic methods rather than conventional methods.
If you decide to go with electronic review, you have to make up your mind that you will conform to it and abandon the old methods. For example, when I first moved to Wyoming, we discussed purchasing a plotter. A plotter is simply an oversized printer. Drawings are usually 42 in. x 30 in. Plotters are expensive machines ($9,000 and up for a good one) and expensive to maintain and operate. Most design firms have a “print room” and technicians that are trained in how to operate and maintain plotters. The fire marshal’s office doesn’t have a print room or technicians. If we got a plotter I knew who would become the operator and technician. Me. Not a very good idea, so I decided we didn’t need a plotter. Seriously though, there is a better reason not to get a plotter. One of the greatest advantages of electronic review is that it eliminates paper, so having a plotter defeats the purpose in that respect. If you want to go electronic you have to acclimate to doing things differently. Having no means to create paper drawings forces you to acclimate to getting along without it. That’s a good thing. Once you get used to electronic review, you will like it so much that you’ll never want to see a paper drawing again. You’ll also get endless praise from the designers and contractors. Besides, they all have plotters anyway, so if you really need paper drawings they can print them out and mail them to you. However, as a reviewer using electronic review, you will never need to ask them to do that.
When doing review work electronically, you will need backup systems. In Wyoming I asked our network people to provide me backup for the plan review project files. That way if my computer got struck by lightning or something, I wouldn’t lose all of the review files. They provided a dedicated external hard drive that is accessed from my computer through the state network. The network also has its own daily backup system. So if I lose my computer and the backup drive simultaneously (which is highly unlikely), the most I could lose is one day’s worth of work. Another nice thing about the external drive being on the state network is that the review files can be accessed by the fire marshal and other people in the office.
I have performed over 850 electronic plan reviews since I came to Wyoming eight years ago. Electronically this amounts to about 2 GB of data per year or a total of about 16 GB (about the amount of data that can be stored on four DVDs and easily on one moderately sized thumb drive). The amount of paper documents this would generate is massive and would require a very large amount of physical storage space to archive. Electronically reviewed documents take no physical storage space. I simply keep an archive database right on my computer work station and also keep it stored on the electronic backup systems. In essence, the electronic backup systems not only protect the files if the hardware malfunctions, they also serve as “electronic archiving” systems. Furthermore, electronically archived files that are several years old can be accessed instantly right from my computer work station. If old archived documents need to be retrieved, there is no need to go to an archive warehouse and search through paper files.
To incorporate electronic plan review, your email box has to have a relatively large capacity. So in the beginning, I had the state IT people create a separate “plan review” mailbox with over three times the normal capacity (500 MB) and dedicated to plan review only. This worked out fine. In Wyoming today, however, that’s no longer a potential problem, because the new state mailboxes will handle 30 GB (way more than is required for electronic plan review). Also the old email receptors had limited capacity, and very large files sent over the internet could actually slow down the entire network. At any rate, you should talk to your IT people and find out just how much Internet receiving and sending capacity you have. It may have to be upgraded. Also, you need to inform the submitters to always convert their DWG drawing files to DWF or PDF before sending them over the Internet. This usually reduces each drawing size from a few megabytes down to a few hundred kilobytes. That makes it unlikely that you will overtax your network and reduces the possibility of exceeding your mailbox capacity.
There is a technical question that I have found to be more of a perceived problem than a real problem. If a signature is sent electronically you could argue that it isn’t technically or legally valid. However, any signature could be forged and perceived as invalid until somehow proven otherwise, whether it is sent over the internet or not. Computers keep a log of each email, showing the date and time it was received and where it came from. It would be a bit of a stretch to accuse a designer of forging a plan reviewer’s signature and somehow emailing it to themselves from the reviewer’s computer (or vice versa). However, an engineer’s seal is a little different. In Wyoming, fire protection drawings must be sealed by a registered engineer. An engineer’s seal is simply a stamp that has the engineer’s name and registration number on it. When a design is completed, the engineer inks the stamp, then stamps, signs and dates each drawing. This process is called a “wet seal.” The engineer that seals the drawings is called the “Engineer of Record” and is legally held accountable for the design by the Professional Engineer’s Board. Obviously an engineer can’t “wet seal” an electronic drawing, so I had to change the procedure. I tell the designers to have the Engineer of Record email me a scanned “letter of approval” with the engineer’s seal and signature affixed, stating that he or she has approved the design. This is not the same thing as a “wet seal” but has exactly the same effect. This is a good example of modifying or changing established methods. [Anytime a registered engineer “approves” a design it’s no different than putting a seal and signature on it. This is a legal precedence that has been set probably more than once but for sure in the Kansas City Hyatt Regency structural disaster.]
Electronic review requires a little resourcefulness and creative thinking to make it happen, but there’s nothing difficult about it. When it’s in place it works beautifully. If you are a decision maker in a reviewing agency and willing to take that initiative, you won’t regret it. Setting up and implementing electronic plan review is very worthwhile and a very rewarding experience.
Learning to operate plan review software is the easy part. Not only is the software free, you don’t need to invest in CADD training. Anyone with basic computer skills and the technical expertise to perform plan review is more than competent enough to transition to electronic review in no time at all.
The electronic filing system is an important concern. You must develop a method of easily accessing the review files and keeping track of the work. This will be unique to each reviewing agency and will take a bit of thought and planning. Nothing should be “cast in stone.” Use only off-the-shelf programs, so the filing system can easily be modified. Most importantly, it’s not that hard to do. The filing system must be created by the people that will be using it, not by computer programmers or outside consultants.
If you want to discuss concerns about electronic review, feel free to contact me anytime. As far as I know, I’m the only reviewer in the country that personally set up and implements complete electronic plan review. I don’t deal with paper at all anymore, and I’m more than willing to help other reviewing agencies in that effort.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bruce Erkiletian is the Senior Fire Protection Engineer for the Wyoming State Fire Marshal’s Office. He created (and personally implements) electronic plan review of design documents for fire protection sprinkler systems, special hazard systems and fire alarm systems. Erkiletian is a graduate of the University of Missouri – Rolla (Missouri University of Science and Technology) with a bachelor of science degree in Mechani- cal Engineering. He is a registered professional engineer in the fire protection discipline in Missouri and Wyoming through the National Council of Engineering Examiners and is Past President of the St. Louis Chapter of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. He entered the fire pro- tection profession in 1977 with Factory Mutual Engineering (now known as FM Global) as an industrial field investigator and plan reviewer and was trained in Fire Protection Engineering at the Factory Mutual Research Center in Norwood, MA. He entered the engineering design field in 1980 and has designed virtually all types of fire protection and fire suppression systems for government, industrial and commercial facilities.