If my own e-mail box is any indication, local officials are already making extensive use of electronic communications. It’s also possible to may make good use of the speed afforded by electronic communications for other, more formal purposes.
In the case of proposed construction projects under review— where time is money—switching to e-mail for communications makes a lot of sense. We would like to share the experiences of the department with one small aspect of code enforcement as an example.
The bulk of enforcement responsibility under the state’s Uniform Construction Code (UCC) is borne locally, however, there are a number of instances where the responsibility falls on the Department of Community Affairs. The department’s Bureau of Construction Project Review reviews plans for casinos, health care facilities and state buildings (including projects undertaken at our state universities and any project where the local officials are not licensed at the appropriate level to undertake the review).
The UCC already contains tight timeframes for plan review. The initial review must be completed within 20 business days and the review of corrections returned in response to comments on the initial plans must be completed within seven business days. There may be several rounds of comments and responses before the plans are ready to be released. One small change made by the department is making a big difference in the speed with which we are communicating with applicants. The exchange of comments and responses are now carried out by e-mail.
The permit applicants benefits greatly in that they no longer must wait for “snail mail” delivery. Instead, they can access the message on needed corrections and additions almost instantly; at anyplace they have internet access. The use of e-mail for this purpose shortens the time between plan submission and final release. Greater efficiency in communication regarding projects under review can positively impact other variables, such as arranging financing, the delivery of materials and alignment of labor, and ultimately, the completion of the project.
Because comments on plans are formal, regulatory communications, the conventional wisdom seems to have been to continue to use letters sent via U.S. mail. Additionally, the regulations require that the enforcing agency maintain “…a central file system by block and lot for each property…for which a permit has been issued or requested or for which an action has been taken,” and that “the files shall contain all information, including inspection reports, correspondence, and so forth, relevant to each application for a construction permit…” (N.J.A.C. 5:23-4.5(a))
A quick review of the monthly construction activity reporting reveals that construction code enforcement offices in 544 of New Jersey’s 566 municipalities have access to and use e-mail as a method of submitting these reports to us. E-mail messaging can also be used to communicate with permit applicants. Municipal construction code enforcement offices that are not already using electronic communication as the preferred means of communication, where possible, are encouraged to embrace this opportunity to speed up the process.
Switching to electronic communications will require a little forethought on the part of the construction code enforcement office to provide for seamless communication and to ensure that information belonging in the central file system is retained. Here are a few suggestions based on our experience in setting up electronic communications related to construction permit applications:
1. Establish generic, multi-user e-mail accounts from which comments are sent and to which responses are directed. Avoiding the use of individual staff e-mail addresses eliminates
a number of potential problems, including messages being overlooked, inadvertently deleted or lost entirely should a staff member separate from service.
2. Adopt a standard way of identifying projects in the e-mail message subject line. The subject line should include the block and lot and the permit number once a permit number has been assigned. This is helpful for sorting or finding messages related to a specific project.
3. Set up ground rules for the format of comments. At DCA, all comments and responses are sent as attachments, not embedded in the e-mail message itself. For the attachments, we use PDF files.
4. Retain copies of all plan review comments and other correspondence sent electronically in a central file as required by the rules. These documents may be maintained in electronic files provided that the files are identified by block and lot and there is a back up.
Obviously, any correction or other response involving the submission of revised plans or other documentation requiring the design professional’s signature and raised seal cannot be submitted electronically and must continue to be sent by way of the US Postal Service or other delivery service. But even the smallest reduction in the time it takes to obtain a final plan release can have a dramatic impact on the timeframe in which the project may ultimately be constructed and occupied. The Department of Community Affairs is finding this initiative to be a fairly big success.
It is our obligation to use every opportunity to increase the efficiency of code enforcement. We look forward to continuing to work with our local partners in construction code enforcement to find ways to improve the way we carry out our responsibilities under the UCC.
DCA Offers Free
Since January 2004, the NJDCA-Division of Codes and Standards has been offering an internet-based Construction Code Enforcement management system called PermitsNJ to New Jersey municipalities. The software addresses the administrative needs of a code enforcement office such as permit issuance and plan review tracking, inspection scheduling and
tracking, violation and penalty tracking, certificate issuance and monthly activity reporting.
PermitsNJ is secure. It takes advantage of New Jersey’s eGovernment technical architecture and production environment, and it positions both state and local Construction Code Enforcement offices to provide residents increased access to services and information beyond traditional delivery methods and normal hours of operation.
PermitsNJ is fully supported. The NJDCA provides technical support for PermitsNJ in the ways that best suit its users; users may:
• Telephone the PermitsNJ technical support team at (609) 292-7899
Mon.-Fri., 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m;
• eMail the PermitsNJ technical support team at email@example.com;
• Attend a PermitsNJ seminar through the department’s continuing
• Arrange for special on-site training tailored to a municipality’s needs; or
• Refer to the Document Library, Codes and Standards’ virtual reference room, read or download the PermitsNJ user manual, or review Frequently Asked Questions.
PermitsNJ is state-approved and boasts hassle-free system updates. New software updates are deployed overnight with no installation required by municipal staff. Users are notified via e-mail of system updates when they occur. Summaries of what’s been changed are posted in the Document Library. Also, when the NJDCA makes changes to the Uniform Construction Code regulations or to the UCC standard forms, the NJDCA makes the necessary changes to PermitsNJ, too.
Because PermitsNJ was developed in a modular or incremental fashion, the department was able to put its base product into production, and then deploy additional features or modules as they were developed, increasing the software’s functionality.
Planned enhancements to the PermitsNJ software include:
• An ePermits module that will enable contractors and do-it-yourself homeowners to apply for Construction Permits over the internet;
•An ePayments module enabling applicants to pay fees online;
• An expanded Plan Review module extending comment exchange with design professionals and NJDCA-reviewed/released plans information exchange with municipal building departments;
• An enhanced periodic inspections module; and
• Interface with other licensing databases such as electrical contractors, master plumbers, registered builders and home improvement contractors.
PermitsNJ is free! The initial software acquisition is free. The annual fee per user is free. And technical support is also free. To get started, call us today at (609) 292-7899.