For the last couple years, installations of new fire alarm systems have decreased significantly due to the slowdown in new building projects. Fortunately, companies that also test and maintain systems have an alternative means of income. Codes require that existing fire alarm systems be tested and serviced to ensure they will work if needed. Even in a good economy, this is an excellent way to provide recurring revenue for your company.
It takes many elements to maintain a successful service department. First, know your state and local laws. Do they require that only licensed and qualified companies work on fire alarm systems? If so, owners can’t maintain the systems themselves. Second, get to know your local fire inspectors. Even though fire departments are not supposed to recommend a particular company to a business owner, they may let them know of a few companies with which they have had success. It is always better to be on that short list rather than depending on being found in the Yellow Pages. Remember, only the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) can force owners to test and maintain their life safety systems, so having that relationship really helps. In this slow economy, owners don’t want to spend money either, so a little prompting by the fire department can go a long way.
Let’s review some of the best practices for a fire alarm service company to have a successful service department. Your service salesperson must be professional and knowledgeable when meeting with prospective clients. When providing clients with your quote to test their fire alarm systems, your salesperson should provide the owners with a copy of the inspection and testing frequency tables found in NFPA 72. You have to assume the clients are not familiar with the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, so you should make them aware of what the inspection and testing requirements are and that your company ensures everything is tested to these frequencies. This way, you make the clients more knowledgeable, and when they get quotes from your competitors, they can compare the numbers equally.
Although some owners will go with the lowest price, many will want to ensure they are getting quality work for their money. One technique is to ask clients if they think their insurance company will pay the claim if there is a fire. Of course, they answer yes. Keep in mind, however, that insurance companies don’t get rich by paying claims. They will do everything they can to pass that liability onto someone else’s insurance company. If the fire alarm system did not work properly, they will want to see test reports. If the system had not been tested per the codes and standards, the owner will have assumed more of the liability.
Remember, NFPA 72 clearly states that owners are responsible for the system installed in their businesses. Investigators will want to know who tested the system. If owners have their own staff test their systems, the insurance investigators will want to ensure the testers were qualified.
Your job is to convince the owners that using your company will reduce their liability.
Ensure your testing and service contracts are very specific about what services you will provide and especially what services you will not. For example, smoke detectors are often used to close smoke dampers. Is your staff qualified to determine if the damper operates properly? If not, you should be clear that you will test the fire alarm system up to the point of interface with the damper and that the owner is responsible for getting a qualified mechanical contractor to ensure the dampers are operating properly. Companies have lost lawsuits based on contracts not clearly exempting certain tests.
If you test a fire alarm system and find devices that don’t work, you want to ensure the system gets fixed as quickly as possible. Some owners will try to postpone this expense as long as they can. I recommend you give the owner an estimate of the costs to repair the system. Better yet, try to get them to budget a certain amount so your technicians can replace devices as they find the problems. If the owner wants to postpone the repairs, I highly recommend you send a copy of the test report to the AHJ. If serious repairs are needed, you may also want to follow that up with phone call. Following these steps also helps minimize your liability exposure. Remember, only the AHJ can enforce repairing the system. I have found that informing the client that you must notify the AHJ of system defects when you sell the service is effective. There are no surprises this way. I never lost a customer by submitting a test report to the fire department.
You gain an additional benefit in the opportunity to get other work from the owner. Perhaps you could take over testing of the building’s fire extinguishers, sprinkler system or security systems. When it is time to upgrade or replace a fire alarm system, you will be in a much better position to get the job.
HAMMERBERG is currently the president/executive director of the Automatic Fire Alarm Association Inc. headquartered in Jasper, Ga. He serves on a number of NFPA committees, including the NFPA 72 Technical Correlating Committee and the Protected Premises Technical Committee. He can be reached at TomHammerberg@afaa.org.