Although the origin of the phrase “May you live in interesting times” is uncertain, the times in which we are living are interesting. They also are challenging for many contractors, especially those who were “too busy” to diversify or learn more about specialty systems, such as fire alarm systems installations.

All of the pundits tell us new construction starts are down, but most of us can figure that out from watching the bailout fiascos march across our TV screens.

According to the McGraw-Hill’s Construction Outlook, the new construction market will continue to slide in 2009. But the bright part of the gloomy picture is that although construction is down, it hasn’t stopped. If you have paid attention to doing what is right and are going the extra mile for your customers, you will continue to get their work. One of the challenges today is to have a steady stream of business to at least pay your bills and keep your talented employees in place until the economy returns to a growth mode.

But these challenges also are opportunities to the contractor who is willing to look for them. For the professional contractor, there always will be fire alarm systems retrofit projects and upgrades. Regardless of the state of the economy, building owners must maintain their life safety systems. If you have developed your niche in the fire alarm systems market, you already know this and are taking advantage of the opportunities.

Now is a good time to enter the fire alarm systems market. Use this slow business period to attend fire alarm systems seminars to better understand the requirements of the National Fire Alarm Code. Network at your local Rotary Club. Volunteer to speak on the importance of maintaining a fire alarm system. Network with local fire officials. They often know owners who need installation or maintenance assistance even before the information becomes public.

If you don’t have a close relationship with a fire alarm systems supplier, now also is a good time to develop one. Working together with systems suppliers often leads to projects.

In addition, many fire alarm systems suppliers offer free training programs that you can use to train your technicians. You also can use this time to obtain certification from either the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies or the International Municipal Signal Association that will give you additional “marketability” for selling your fire alarm systems expertise. At the same time, mine your current customer base for contacts and market your fire alarm systems expertise. Never assume that because your present customers know your electrical systems installation strengths that they will automatically know your fire alarm systems background as well.

One of the ways to market your fire alarm systems maintenance abilities is to send instructional letters to your current customer base. Present them with the NFPA 72 requirements that the property or building owner or the owner’s designated representative is responsible for the inspection, testing and maintenance of the system and for alterations or additions to their fire alarm system. Develop a plan that will allow them to use your company to efficiently maintain their system by offering to audit what is currently installed. Article 110.12 of the National Electrical Code (NEC) requires that “electrical equipment shall be installed in a neat and workmanlike manner.” It also specifically addresses the mechanical execution of work for fire alarm systems in Article 760.24 that states “Fire alarm circuits shall be installed in a neat workmanlike manner.” We have all seen “Code-compliant” installations that do not meet the intent of NEC Articles 110.12 and 760.24. And although those systems appear to be working, they are less than satisfactory when applying the operational reliability test to the installation. The audit can provide the customer with a report card of their systems as well as provide you the opportunity to develop upgrade suggestions and bids.

In these difficult times, make every effort to differentiate your company from the competition. One way is to become the acknowledged expert in fire alarm systems application and installation. Another is to be known as the most reliable contractor in town.

It is your choice. Wring your hands, and worry about losing business, or get busy and face the challenges with knowledge and hard work.

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 Code Handbook. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office.