Texas fire department automates inventory management without learning to code
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Apr 15, 2020
Using automation developed by a staff member, the Garland, Texas, Fire Department can better inventory its thousands of assets and comply with regulations.
“We track everything from large equipment like our apparatus -- our fire trucks, our engines, our ambulances, our staff vehicles -- all the way down to the Band-Aids,” said Debbie Watson, senior business process analyst and citizen developer at the department.
The department used to track inventory with spreadsheets, a Microsoft Access database and pencil and paper, she said. “We found that when we asked questions like, ‘How much hose do we need to buy this year because it’s going to be coming to end of life?’ we couldn’t answer that question in a timely manner.”
Another pain point was the annual audit by the Texas Commission of Fire Protection. To check maintenance records on over 1,700 pieces of equipment, auditors had to page through six to 10 inch thick binder full of paper records -- a process that used to take five to six hours, Watson said. With the automation, it takes about a half-hour.
Watson created one database that shows each asset and its serial number, date of manufacture, date of purchase and other pertinent information, and she created another that tracks all activities associated with that asset: putting it into service, repairs, having it cleaned and taking it out of service, for example. That allowed the auditor to select a person, “pull up that person’s information and there’s all the details right there,” she said. “He walked in and walked out in 30 minutes.”
She used Microsoft SharePoint Nintex Workflow for SharePoint and Nintex Forms to develop the solution. Data entered in Nintex Forms is stored in SharePoint, and the Nintex Workflow lets users drag and drop elements to build automated processes without having to learn to code.
“The workflow is my favorite part because it enables us to automate all this stuff and seamlessly move it from place to place,” Watson said. “If I need to do anything from calculations, validations, approvals, movement from one list to another, all that … is done using the Nintex Workflow.”
One of the biggest benefits of automation has been in ease of reporting, she said. For instance, the department must meet Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) requirements for tracking controlled substances. Historically, ambulance staff members did that by conducting occasional audits and faxing in their numbers, which were added to a paper log that was stored in the department’s narcotics vault. Someone then went to the ambulances to verify the numbers’ accuracy.
Now, “it’s really simple to just have each ambulance submit a data check each morning, and we know what we have across the entire department at any time,” Watson said. That’s important because “we need to be able to tell [the DEA] at any moment how much of a certain medication we have in the city and where it is, what the expiration dates on those are, how many are expired and how many of those are on this ambulance.”
Another area that automation has simplified is budgeting for future purchases of assets, such as ladders or hose.
“Before, it was so hard to know which ones were coming to end of life, and now it’s super simple to say, ‘Show me all hose that was manufactured before 10 years ago‘… and that gives us a leeway to know when we’re going to need to purchase,” Watson said.
Automation facilitates firefighters’ daily activities, too. For instance, when they need their gear cleaned after responding to a fire, they can open a request using the Nintex forms and it shows all the gear they’re responsible for. They check what they need cleaned, the support services department gets a notice, they pick up the gear, wash it, fill out a report that it’s done and return the gear.
Starting small with asset tracking was a great way to get department support for automation, Watson said. Now, everybody in the department is responsible for inventorying. She’s now working on an application to automate daily checks of self-contained breathing apparatus, which firefighters must conduct on their own device.
The city government made Nintex available to all its 45 business units so that users without coding skills, like Watson, could create process automation solutions. So far, the city has about 20 citizen developers and has saved $4 million through their work.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.