Taking flight to protect county buildings

TAC RMP drone surveys support underwriting, risk control and claims

By Liz Carmack, Sr. Communications Specialist

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Two crows flap their wings in the cold breeze and settle onto the bare limb of a pecan tree on the Dawson County Courthouse grounds. Their cawing is soon joined by the buzzing sound of another bird taking flight — a 2-pound drone mounted with a high-resolution camera.

Chris Wilson of DataWing Global pilots the miniature aircraft around the 1916 courthouse’s exterior on a December morning in 2019, shooting more than 216 aerial photos and video. 

This inspection of the Dawson County Courthouse and six other county buildings in Lamesa was conducted under a new TAC Risk Management Pool (TAC RMP) program that uses drone surveys to assist TAC RMP members participating in its Property Program.

 “We’re gaining increased efficiency and safety during property inspections, and improving the accuracy of the data we collect to help inform both the Pool and our members, all at no additional cost to them,” said Michael Shannon, Director of TAC’s Risk Management Services Department. 

During 2018 and 2019, TAC RMP conducted drone surveys of 44 county-owned buildings in Dawson, Denton, Karnes and Mills counties valued at a total of $321 million. The risk assessment reports produced from the data collected provided the counties with more than 250 maintenance recommendations to help them protect their facilities.

This year, the Pool plans to visit an additional 35 counties to inspect more than 100 buildings. 

“Drone surveys are done at the Pool’s discretion. Once we select a county, they have the option to either participate or not,” said Robert Ruiz, Associate Director of TAC Risk Management Services. “We consider several pertinent criteria when selecting a county for a survey. It’s done in part by the value of their buildings and/or if the member is new to the Property Program. A cost-benefit analysis is considered when selecting each building.”

Eye in the sky helps counties

Drones, also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being used worldwide for everything from crop monitoring and search-and-rescue operations to risk management. 
“More commercial insurers are using them, but they don’t use them quite as we do in a preventative or baseline assessment way,” Ruiz said. 
This new technology will benefit TAC RMP members in three ways:

Better data to improve maintenance — Drone surveys can provide counties with better risk management through improved data collection and analysis and provide actionable insights, Ruiz said. “Drones can increase inspection efficiency by easily going where others cannot. We can conduct safer property inspections and provide detailed risk assessments reports.”
During the drone inspection, the county’s TAC Risk Control Consultant is on-site to coordinate with county officials and staff and also conducts an interior risk control inspection, which includes checking that fire extinguisher inspections are up to date, noting any trip or electrical hazards and more.  Within two months of the completed survey, TAC RMP provides the county with an in-depth, risk assessment report with a prioritized list of interior and exterior potential areas of concern to address with accompanying photos, and a recommended maintenance plan. The county’s TAC Risk Control Consultant will conduct an onsite debrief with the county to discuss the report and its findings including any best maintenance practices if needed.

Improved property value assessments for underwriting — Drone surveys of county buildings ensure TAC RMP underwriters have a more complete understanding of the properties covered by the Pool than would be provided through traditional inspection methods, Ruiz said. “The inspection is non-invasive, more efficient and safer than renting a scissor lift that could tear up the courthouse grounds and minimize the need to climb up a clock tower or scoot out onto the roof.”

Quicker, more accurate loss detection for claims — TAC RMP can deploy a drone to assess county property damage immediately following a storm, high winds, torrential rain or other severe weather event. More extensive information can be collected and gathered more quickly by a drone flying a camera than an adjuster on foot who might be hampered by storm damage and other obstacles, particularly after a catastrophic event,
he said.  

Denton, Dawson counties gain insights

After Denton County added TAC RMP Property coverage in 2018, its buildings were one of the first to be surveyed during a pilot of the drone program. The inspection covered 37 of its 55 buildings and identified critical issues on three roofs — a few missing shingles on one, worn membrane roofing on another and construction debris left by contractors on a third. This information allowed the county to quickly make needed repairs and remove the debris, preventing larger problems these issues would have created if left unaddressed.  

“The reports were very thorough with lots of comments and details, and the pictures were clear and showed the exact location of each issue, which was very helpful to us in finding the area quickly without having to search the entire roof,” said Dale Nelson, Denton County’s assistant director of facilities. 
Michelle Brewer, Denton County’s assistant director of human resources, said she enjoyed participating in the project.

“One of the best benefits of a drone survey is to help reduce or mitigate potential risks/losses and that is one of our main goals at the county,” she said. “Drones can often gain quick access to areas that a standard inspection could not.”

The data also allowed Denton County to plan ahead and make the non-critical repairs identified by the drone images, such as cleaning rust from vents and exhaust fans. Funding for these repairs is going into next year’s budget, Brewer said. 

“Most of our buildings were in pretty good condition. We found out that our public facilities maintenance program is working well,” Nelson said. “It gave us a comfort level knowing that most of our buildings were in good shape.”

In Dawson County, the drone inspections revealed a serpentine surprise. A suspicious object resembling a snake, approximately 16-24 inches long, was photographed on the roof of the Dawson County Tax Appraisal Building.  TAC promptly notified Dawson County Judge Foy O’Brien of this potential hazard before his county’s report was finalized.

“A snake had crawled up the drain spout on one of the gutters,” O’Brien said, and added with a laugh, “I didn’t want to show the ladies who work in the building the photo because they might not show back at work.” In photos taken shortly after its initial citing, the snake was gone.

O’Brien knows first-hand the benefits this technology can provide. He owns several drones mounted with cameras to survey his cotton crops and cattle. He’s even taken drone photos and video of crime scenes to assist the county district attorney’s office, evidence that was later used in court.

Applying the same technology to help counties is smart, he said. It can be easy to assume all is well with the roofs of county facilities because there are no visible leaks, but by the time you do see a leak, it’s too late, he said. 

The view a drone-mounted camera can provide is invaluable. “You can walk on a roof all day long and you just don’t get the perspective that you get from a drone (flying) several feet higher,” O’Brien said. “It’s amazing how much difference there is.”