As defined and discussed in the web-based Wikipedia “competence is a standardized requirement for an individual to properly perform a specific job. It encompasses a combination of knowledge, skills and behavior utilized to improve performance. More generally, competence is the state or quality of being adequately or well-qualified, having the ability to perform a specific role.”

So, how do we measure competence in our rapidly changing technology environment? According to Wikipedia: “A person possesses a competence as long as the skills, abilities, and knowledge that constitute that competence are a part of him, enabling the person to perform effective action within a certain workplace environment. Therefore, one might not lose knowledge, a skill or an ability, but still lose a competence if what is needed to do a job well changes.”

Isn’t that where we are? The fire alarm industry has changed over the last few years to require different skills than those normally taught to electricians.

The trend has been to accept licensing as a measure of an individual’s competency. That is a certain level of competence is expected when one has a journeyman’s license and a different level when one has a master’s license. But are we teaching the right information regarding fire alarm systems to our apprentice electricians as they learn the trade?

We all still see poor fire alarm system installations either as a result of incompetent designers or incompetent installers. So, what are we missing in our industry that still allows a system intended to provide life safety to be installed without following our minimum codes?

An understanding of proper programming techniques of a fire alarm system are essential to understanding how a fire alarm control unit operates. It may not be necessary to know each manufacturer’s protocol, but it is necessary to understand the impact of incorrect programming.

Most training takes place in the classroom and on the job but, in my opinion, we are not teaching the importance of quality craftsmanship. Classroom training includes a thorough review of both the National Electrical Code and National Fire Alarm Code. Everyone should agree that “book-learning” or code knowledge is only part of the equation.

When it comes to experience to provide on-the-job training, we rely on journeymen to be assigned to a “newbie” as a mentor and his job was to teach the essentials of good workmanship and installation practices and how to apply those techniques necessary to ensure a competent installation.

Experience provided by those individuals is essential to the quality and growth in our profession. How do you measure experience? Some of the older technicians will say, “I have 15 (or more) years experience!” The question that needs to be answered should be, “Is that one year of experience repeated 15 times?” Or is it qualified experience indicative of growth in the field?

New technology has changed the landscape for some journeymen, and those involved in training the new technicians should be well versed in the current fire alarm system technology.

Understanding that the programming of a system may take days will also help those involved in the planning and scheduling of system completion and final acceptance tests. Many electricians rely on the equipment supplier to perform the programming and that makes sense as long as you give them the time needed to do their job.

NFPA 72-2007, adopted in June of this year by the membership of the National Fire Protection Association states the following requirements in section 4.3.3 for fire alarm system installers: “Installation personnel shall be qualified or shall be supervised by persons who are qualified in the installation, inspection, and testing of fire alarm systems. Evidence of qualifications or certification shall be provided when requested by the authority having jurisdiction. Qualified personnel shall include, but not be limited to, one or more of the following:

(1) Personnel who are factory trained and certified for fire alarm system installation of the specific type and brand of system being installed

(2) Personnel who are certified by a nationally recognized fire alarm certification organization acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction

(3) Personnel who are registered, licensed, or certified by a state or local authority.”

In order to ensure competency, we need to combine the measurement of training, mentoring, licensure and certification to ensure quality and reliability are built into the design and installation of our life safety systems.

Measure competency in your firm and use individuals qualified in fire alarm system installations teamed with your apprentices. These people make good mentors—use them as such. Invest in the future by investing in training, education and the use of mentors.    EC

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.