Elecrical contractors become very comfortable having someone looking over their shoulder to judge their work. Most of the time, the electrical inspector fills the role of judge. Many electrical inspectors were once licensed electricians. They now work for a jurisdiction and use their experience and National Electrical Code (NEC) knowledge to review and judge your electrical installation for Code compliance.
The inspector’s electrician background has given him or her experience and knowledge to understand the electrical trade and what constitutes a workmanlike installation. And because inspectors have that experience, they can speak your language.
Communication between the electrical contractor and the inspector usually is very clear. Naturally, the electrical inspector may have developed opinions as to how to interpret various sections of the NEC. But those interpretations usually make sense from an electrical safety point of view and will not appreciably change the cost of the installation.
We often refer to electrical and fire inspectors as an “authority having jurisdiction” (AHJ). NFPA 72-2007 defines the AHJ as “[a]n organization, office, or individual responsible for enforcing the requirements of a code or standard, or for approving equipment, materials, an installation, or a procedure.”
The National Fire Alarm Code further explains in the annex that “[t]he phrase ‘authority having jurisdiction,’ or its acronym AHJ, is used in NFPA documents in a broad manner, since jurisdictions and approval agencies vary, as do their responsibilities. Where public safety is primary, the authority having jurisdiction may be a federal, state, local, or other regional department or individual such as a fire chief; fire marshal; chief of a fire prevention bureau, labor department, or health department; building official; electrical inspector; or others having statutory authority. For insurance purposes, an insurance inspection department, rating bureau, or other insurance company representative may be the authority having jurisdiction. In many circumstances, the property owner or his or her designated agent assumes the role of the authority having jurisdiction; at government installations, the commanding officer or departmental official may be the authority having jurisdiction.”
Although an AHJ can be any of the above, the electrical contractor who installs a commercial fire alarm system typically deals with an electrical inspector and a fire official. Unfortunately, the differences between the two AHJs may be like night and day.
Rarely will you find a fire official who has electrical experience. That means he or she does not usually have the trade or construction experience to adequately judge your work. And before you decide that maybe that has some advantage for you, remember that your competition might not have the same professionalism or qualifications that you do. They could “get away with” a less than stellar performance, such as a cheaper installation.
Depending on the extent of the fire official’s knowledge of fire alarm system installations and the requirements of the code, you may find that every job he or she inspects will cost you more money due to the addition of detection devices or notification appliances. Now in some cases, the code states very clear requirements for the placement of detectors and notification appliances. But, in many cases, placement could become a judgment call. When an AHJ uses poor judgment, your profits will decrease. If you decide not to add the devices and appliances, the AHJ will withhold the certificate of occupancy. As a result, your credibility will suffer with your customer.
Because of the disparity of knowledge between fire AHJs, the professional contractor must know the requirements of the National Fire Alarm Code as well as have a strong background in the application of detection devices and notification appliances. It is equally important for you to consult with the fire official before bidding the fire alarm system installation. This will ensure that you have a good understanding of the AHJ’s interpretations of the code requirements. It also will allow you to determine whether “local” requirements exist in addition to the code requirements.
In many cases, you can provide the fire official with information regarding how to properly install the fire alarm system equipment you are planning for the project.
When an AHJ finds a professional contractor he or she can trust, one who consistently performs quality installations, the AHJ will use that contractor as a source of information. In addition, the AHJ will recommend you as someone trustworthy who knows the code requirements for a fire alarm system.
So, is an AHJ a friend or a foe? As is often the case, the answer to the question is it depends on how you develop your relationship with the AHJ. And, of course, it depends on how well you do your job. If you cut corners or try to avoid following the code, you probably will make the AHJ your foe. However, if you forthrightly present your work to the AHJ, you will develop a friend who will help you to market your talents.
MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a co-editor of the current National Fire Alarm Handbook. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc.. at the Warwick, R.I., office.