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Pittsburgh buys iPhones for building inspectors in effort to streamline operations

Sunday, May 11, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Brian Ralston used to arrive at the office with 15 or more voicemails waiting for him from Pittsburgh residents, business owners and contractors.

As an inspector with the city Bureau of Building Inspection, he spends his days in the field, navigating among property inspections.

“If you didn't have my personal cellphone, you had to call and leave a message,” he said.

In mid-April, the city rolled out iPhones for BBI inspectors, a purchase intended to speed up operations and provide better service, said BBI acting chief Maura Kennedy.

“There were issues in terms of being able to communicate with our customers, who are the citizens and businesses of Pittsburgh,” Kennedy said.

Before the cellphones were purchased, applicants who wanted to speak with an inspector would have to visit BBI's Ross Street offices before inspectors head out about 10 a.m. — or play a game of phone tag.

Ralston, an eight-year BBI veteran who oversees commercial building inspections in the South Side and half the HVAC installations in the city, used to provide his personal cell number for frequent clients.

The inspector's city cell number now is included on permit applications. Applicants sometimes request additional information or have a question about a permit's status, Ralston said, especially if the inspector has dealt primarily with an architect or contractor.

Email access in the field has improved communication among city departments, Ralston said. Conversations between zoning officials and inspectors, to give updates on properties, happen within minutes, he said.

“Before, we couldn't really answer back unless we called in or when we got to the office the next day,” he said.

The city will spend about $2,885 a month on a bundled cellphone service plan. Purchasing five iPhone 5s and 40 iPhone 4s for the department cost the city about $3,000, including car chargers and cases.

A 2011 audit from Controller Michael Lamb found that, despite progress in recent years, the division struggled to maintain accurate property information and used glitch-prone software. Kennedy, 32, who was an official with Philadelphia's Department of Licenses and Inspections, is taking over a department that has had three directors since 2008.

Mayor Bill Peduto has called modernizing city government a core tenet of his administration. Kennedy said possibilities include allowing inspectors to enter property data from the field in real time, and offering permit applications online.

Ralston said online permitting would improve access to permit status and requirements, the kind of information residents might have struggled to obtain with outmoded communication.

“We're all just waiting to see,” he said. “We gotta be moving out of the '80s, as everybody said, and coming into the new millennium.”

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or




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