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Louisiana Fire Marshal launches first-of-its-kind online platform to keep up with private sector

An unlikely state government agency has modernized its day-to-day operations this year in an “ambitious” effort to keep up with the private sector.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office—a $25 million-per-year operation handling permits, arson investigations and building codes—leveled its former system and started from scratch this year after a six-year implementation of a new information management system, or IMS.

The new program was funded by a $2.6 million federal grant the office received in 2010, which Louisiana Fire Marshal Butch Browning says has allowed his office to go “nearly paperless.”

“The Fire Marshal could be a Fortune 500 company of the public sector,” says Browning.

Beginning in January, the office switched from its long-used pen and paper system to the new  “one-stop shop,” Browning says, which allows businesses, architects and contractors to handle permits and inspections through the web.

Browning says the new platform can cut wait times for code reviews and inspections by more than half, adding he hopes it can help further economic development by not holding up business growth and construction. Inspectors are now outfitted with iPads, and reviews and appeals go straight to Browning’s iPhone.

Browning’s employees used to spend around a quarter of their day dealing with paperwork. Now, reviewing electronic paperwork takes up 5% of their day.

“It lends itself to more efficient government,” says National Association of State Fire Marshals Executive Director Jim Narva.

Texas and Tennessee are already interested in implementing Louisiana’s six-month-old, “all-encompassing” program, which Narva says is the only of its kind in the country.

Narva expects the Louisiana office to showcase the IMS at an annual conference of 35 fire marshal offices next week. And businesses are feeling the impact of a faster, sleeker system of reviewal when working on projects, says Post Architects partner and project architect Lisa Nice.

Filling out and submitting paperwork for review before the new system, where she had to hand-deliver specifications to the Fire Marshal Office, took at least a full day and a few hundred dollars, Nice says. Now that process has been whittled down to about an hour.

“It’s tremendously more convenient,” she says. “I just turned in a set of plans on Monday and I’ve already received my review comments back.”

—Sam Karlin

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