Technology to Streamline Fire Safety Equipment Inspection and Maintenance

Building information modeling and augmented reality provide a seamless, integrated process for updating and maintaining essential fire safety equipment.

Building information modeling (BIM) and augmented reality (AR) enhance the design, development, maintenance and operations of any building project. According to OSHA, the level of information available as emergency personnel arrive at a site is a critical factor in a successful fire response. As the amount of available information increases, the likelihood of a successful rescue increases. This same principle also holds true for preventative fire safety maintenance. BIM and AR increase the efficiency and thoroughness of fire safety equipment inspection by showing detailed building designs and maintenance information at the inspectors’ fingertips.

What is BIM?

Originally invented in the late 1970s, building information modeling (BIM) has gained much more traction recently in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry.1 BIM provides a one-stop shop for all information about a building design in a single model. This model can be used by legal teams, clients, architects, contractors, suppliers, engineers, construction managers, interior designers and site personnel to create designs, evaluate plans, and assess maintenance needs. BIM models are n-dimensional, as they include a 3D structure model in addition to HVAC, electric, plumbing, structural load modeling, emergency systems and other specialized models

While computer-aided design (CAD) has been a long-standing tool in AEC, CAD provides limited views of the building process in comparison to BIM.2 CAD is meant to digitize existing drawings and is often exported as 2D snapshots to share across the full building development team. Dependencies between objects and features are clearly articulated in BIM to realize the full implications of even a minor change across all systems. For example, if a designer wants to move this window 6 inches to the left, the structural engineers would need to move that beam, which changes the fire hazard potential of the area, and so on. The documentation of these dependencies is usable throughout the entire building project lifecycle, including planning, design, construction, maintenance, operation and decommissioning of a building.

BIM provides a comprehensive system view that enables unprecedented opportunity to streamline building development.3 Cost estimation is automated by BIM tools based on current design choices. Cross-system optimization promotes green building design—as energy usage can be minimized—and improves quality, reliability and durability across the lifetime of the project. As a single source of information for all building plans, BIM eliminates the need to reconcile multiple conflicting models as changes are made in independent teams. BIM also provides an audit trail with built-in change management. Many permits, regulations and legal considerations can be automatically checked within the model and updated with each change. Critical emergency response information, including fire safety equipment, is logged in context of all other building features.

What is AR?

Augmented reality (AR) has been a topic of science fiction for decades. AR generally involves enhancing our perception of the world with a graphical overlay, like smart glasses or a heads-up display (HUD). Though many applications for AR are for entertainment, there are also numerous industrial applications for warehousing and construction. For example, research teams are exploring some applications of AR for warehouse operations.4 Since over half of all warehouse operations involve finding and picking packages, augmented reality can greatly speed up and reduce the cost of warehousing by enabling workers to visualize the exact location of packages.

Augmented reality directly complements BIM—the sheer amount of information stored about a building can be used to amplify an augmented reality projection of that building. High quality renders can be put directly into AR because BIM has a detailed, consistent information set from multiple steps of the design and construction process. AR can then also selectively display subsystems, like electrical, plumbing or HVAC.

How are BIM and AR Useful for Fire Safety Inspections?

Researchers are exploring ways to bring the benefits of AR and BIM to fire safety inspections and related maintenance procedures.5 Currently, most facility maintenance workers use 2D drawings to find elements in the building. This procedure is tremendously inefficient, since 2D drawings only show an isolated view of the building, and each of those 2D drawings may have inconsistencies with how the building was actually constructed. This can cause misinterpretation or discrepancies between fire safety-related records and the actual implementation and storage of fire safety equipment in the building.

The fire systems for a building are designed early in the BIM process, usually during the design development (DD) phase. Once the building is constructed and complete, any changes to the fire system will have already been integrated into schematics and renders. As a result, fire safety inspections can be expedited by informing inspectors of the location of all relevant systems beforehand. Furthermore, an AR overlay can speed up finding these systems throughout the building. The inspectors can also be enabled to bypass access control to avoid delays.

In general, the participants in this research project agreed that the AR-BIM system reduced the time of the inspection process, reduced paper waste, ensured correctness and integrity of information transmission and ensured compliance with the testing process. The majority of participants experienced a learning curve to adjust to the tablet-based AR system, but even with this learning curve, inspection time was reduced by 25 percent.

What are the Limitations of BIM and AR Systems?

Although there are many benefits to these technologies, there are several known limitations to AR and BIM6 that are actively under research, such as:

*Cybersecurity. As with all digital technology, it can be challenging to keep sensitive information protected. Limiting data access is especially important to protect personal information and prevent crime.

*Legal implications. Intellectual property, including the building designs captured in BIM and used in AR displays, is governed by complex legislation. As each of these technologies have been recently adopted and under ongoing development, the legal implications of these technologies are not yet fully explored.

*Human error. Although BIM is designed to be collaborative among all parties, it is possible for a miscommunication between on-site workers and designers to occur. This could lead to a discrepancy between the model and actual building. Bringing more AR capability into BIM would help automatically validate constructed features against their models in real time.

*Development overhead. Both BIM and AR require software design overhead, which consumes more time and energy up front. As these programs and processes are further refined, overhead will be reduced.

*Data interoperability. Existing model data might be stored across various programs and sources. BIM integrates all of these disparate data sources into one location, which could require data management to transition to a new modeling system. This is a challenge that is already present with current use of 2D systems, and AR-BIM systems would facilitate the collection of these data sources.

*Management shift. Introducing BIM and AR fundamentally changes the way building project management and safety inspections are handled. Technology isn’t the only piece of this equation—this changes project requirements, timelines and deliverables for all parties involved in the project.

*Cost. Licensing and device expenses for BIM and AR systems is well above paper-based methods in regards to upfront investment. However, the lifetime savings and overall optimization these technologies provide pushes overall cost down.

Why Should My Team Use BIM and AR for Fire Safety Inspection?

While there are many challenges to adopting new technologies, the benefits of both AR and BIM are immediately apparent. Their additional cost and effort reduce over time. If you use any BIM programs in your design cycle (which you should, since BIM provides benefits to almost everyone), then pivoting your current inspection procedures to take advantage of AR with BIM is a must.7 Introducing AR and BM to fire safety inspection reduces user error and facilitates information transfer between parties. Additionally, AR can automatically validate and update BIM documentation to further reduce human error. At every step of the building project lifecycle, BIM and AR increase efficiency and quality, even for emergency preparations like fire prevention.

This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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