ALS News Guardpost : How Many Field Inspections Have You Conducted?

Cathy Wilson, ALS

One of the questions on the CCR survey that is sent out to practitioners is “in the past year, how many field inspections have you conducted on your work?” Although we see a variety of answers, eyebrows are definitely raised when we see “zero.” Being a new member on the PRB, it brought me back to one of my own reviews in which I had answered the very same thing – “zero.” In my situation, I had been on maternity leave and had just come back to work when filling out the questionnaire, so I had not had the opportunity to do any field inspections in the last year. Coincidentally, my CCR file involved a riparian boundary, which I did the field inspection virtually through photos and videos because I was pregnant at the time of the fieldwork and not particularly available to go to the field and stomp around the banks of an actively flowing river. So, pondering my own situation, I thought it might be worthwhile to dig a little deeper into the subject of field inspections. What if a land surveyor becomes physically disabled and is unable to go the field? What if all your sites are very remote? In our world of ever-advancing technology and considering the current challenges of travel during this global pandemic, is a virtual field inspection as valid as an in-person inspection? What is a reasonable expectation when it comes to conducting field inspections as a land surveyor?

With the availability of video calls, text messages, videos, and photos, Alberta Land Surveyors have the opportunity like never before to stay constantly connected with field crews, see what they are seeing in real time, ask questions and give directions. When a field crew is conducting a boundary survey under my supervision, I find it very much worth it to spend quite a bit of time on the phone with them discussing what evidence is or is not there, asking for pictures over text, and advising on methodology. Does this count as a field inspection? What we can now see and discuss using currently available technology is certainly far different than what we could even ten years ago.

Over the years, the role of the land surveyor has become increasingly office based with supervision and guidance being given to field crews who perform most of the field work. This makes the question even more valid; how often, or when, should a land surveyor conduct field inspections? I think the question is best answered when we consider what value is derived from a field inspection.

I have personally done field inspections in situations where the evidence may be questionable. For example, a field crew noted a wood post on their field notes. On the contrary, my desktop research revealed no record that a wood post was ever placed at the position during the township survey so I wanted to review the situation for myself. Upon arriving in the field, I could see that there was a very old fence in the area, with posts similar in size to the “wood post” the crew had found and that it was very likely that the wood post was indeed the remnants of a fence post of the same vintage. This led me to rule it out as an original wood post planted by the township survey but being onsite and seeing the fence did lead me to give consideration to the line created by the old fence. It was also an excellent mentoring opportunity with the field crew to review the types of things I would consider when looking at the evidence and surroundings in the field that may have been otherwise overlooked. The question remains – could that particular inspection have been done over video call, or by reviewing pictures and videos? I believe that it could have been but the interaction with the field crew, the mentoring opportunity and, of course, the fresh air made it worthwhile for me to physically attend the site.

The timing of the writing of this article is almost poetic as I am completing it after having returned from reviewing a riparian boundary in the field. This particular inspection involved islands, old, accreted channels, flooded areas, and the junction of two rivers. Although I have used virtual tools in the past for situations that I considered straight-forward, I do not believe I would have been able to gain the full context of this situation without attending the site myself.

The Manual of Standard Practice and the Surveys Act are fairly silent on the requirements for a land surveyor to personally conduct field inspections. However, when we sign our affidavits, we swear that the survey was completed under our personal supervision. The topic of personal supervision has been approached before – what is a reasonable level of personal supervision if you are not attending the site yourself? Field inspections allow a land surveyor to gauge how the field crew is searching for evidence and creates an excellent mentoring opportunity.  It gives us a reality check on the challenges of being in the field and keeps us current on the technologies our crews are using. It also gives us the opportunity to keep our minds fresh with procedures for evidence review in the field.

At the end of the day, it is important to be inclusive and recognize that situations will vary for each land surveyor. Whether due to age, disability, location, or other factors that make field visits difficult, there are alternatives available if a land surveyor is unable to physically attend and complete field inspections. A trusted ALS colleague could do the inspection and give a report, training sessions can be held with staff virtually if the crew is working remotely, video calls and real time photo exchanges are all now common. We can accomplish so much so easily with the technology available to us, but there is definitely a limit to what we can do without being there. Gaining an understanding of the overall context of the scene can be critical to the survey and impossible to do without standing on the spot and letting your own trained and experienced surveyor’s brain take it all in. And, as I recently confirmed with my own riparian boundary inspection, nothing beats a good day in the field!

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The Alberta Land Surveyors' Association (ALSA) is a self-regulating professional association legislated under the Land Surveyors Act. The Association regulates the practice of land surveying for the protection of the public.