Adapting to Change: Takeaways from the pandemic

Shutterstock / Lightly Stranded / Whanyen Graphic
Shutterstock / Lightly Stranded / Whanyen Graphic
Published On
May 14, 2021

What have we learned from the pandemic? Regardless of where we are in the design and installation process, how we approach the work we normally perform has changed. Hopefully, we have also learned some important business lessons about fire alarm systems design and installation.

One takeaway from pandemic work should be looking after the people who work for you. If you did that, you would have built loyalty, commitment and long-lasting teams. In your quest to look out for your personnel, limit unnecessary time spent on a project to avoid exposure to COVID-19. Use reliable equipment and a code-compliant design that considers the environment you are protecting. Doing so can limit call-backs due to equipment issues and false alarms. In general, fire alarm system delays and call-backs cost you money. This could be because you chose the lowest bidder as the equipment supplier.

I read an article by Peter Kaufman, who derived the questions below from the teachings of Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. The idea is to look at all large purchases (in our case the fire alarm system equipment) not as a direct cost alone, but also to consider the “opportunity cost.”

“Questions to help you see through the lens of opportunity cost:

1. And then what?

2. Compared to what?

3. At the expense of what?

“Most people focus on what something costs today. These ‘direct costs’ are easy to see and measure. Looking through an opportunity lens takes these direct costs into consideration but also considers indirect costs [such as equipment failure and false alarms]. Indirect costs can be foreseen but not measured. They include the cost of doing something, the cost of not doing something, the cost of what you could be doing and, importantly, the cost of not doing something right.”

I would add the indirect costs of not getting the fire alarm system equipment on time, the delays incurred due to lack of proper scheduling of equipment programmers, the difficulty for your technicians to deal with a different fire alarm system on every job, the cost of not getting the tech support you know you will need and the cost of call-backs—whether for service or false alarms.

I always recommend that building owners standardize on fire alarm equipment, especially if there are multiple buildings involved at one location. This benefits you as well. Using one supplier actually gets you better pricing in the long run, reducing direct costs and ensuring technicians understand the equipment and installation requirements better. You also become a more important customer to the supplier. This means you will go to the top of the list when you need assistance on a project.

During the past year, construction sites employed mandatory and precautionary health and safety measures, some of which slowed installation progress. Project delays and shutdowns played havoc with your workload distribution and plans. This may have left you with idle technicians and—given the difficulty in finding good workers—you scrambled to keep them.

Over this past year, fire alarm systems equipment manufacturers offered hundreds of free training programs. Another lesson you should have learned was to use downtime to train your technicians by taking advantage of the free instruction.

Andrew Gilman and Karen Berg, co-authors of “ Get to the Point: How to Say What You Mean and Get What You Want ,” state that “The secret of crisis management is not good vs. bad. It’s preventing the bad from getting worse.” Most of us were indeed scrambling to do just that during the pandemic.

On the bright side

There have been some positive changes stemming from the challenges of 2020. One is that the inspection authorities became willing to perform some inspections remotely. Remote testing is coming of age as more inspection authorities realize the benefits of simply getting on Zoom or Teams and having the on-site camera follow the verbal narrative of the technician performing the test. To help with the acceptance of this concept, NFPA developed a new standard, NFPA 915, Standard for Remote Inspections .

The pandemic pushed technology to the forefront of all we do. Over the past year, it became acceptable to make appointments and have meetings and sales calls electronically. These types of meetings will remain an option as most of us have become comfortable with the platforms.

Although many large projects were on hold, the same owners and general contractors had smaller projects to fill the business gap. If you stayed in touch with the right people, you had a better chance of getting a share of the available work, including service and testing that is still required for fire alarm systems.

Over the past year, many owners essentially shut down their office buildings as workers stayed home. This could have affected the fire alarm equipment, which may be the only protection they have. It behooves you to remind them the systems should stay online and be in working order, and that code-required testing is still enforced.

The lessons learned from trying to operate a business during the pandemic really amount to how much you were able to accept change and adapt.

We might want to forget the lockdowns, and business interruptions. If you learned anything from the pandemic experience, however, remember the innovative ways you approached your customers and ideas you used to ensure a stable workload. Going forward, ensure you maintain a plan to adapt to the changes that are surely coming our way.

Best practices for fire alarm systems remain the same. Make sure the equipment purchased is the right choice for the project and ensure your technicians know how to install the fire alarm system properly. Know the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code requirements, ensure each truck has a copy of the code and present classes to technicians to help them understand the importance of installing a fire alarm system correctly. If you put in the effort, your bottom line will continue to grow.

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker, writer and expert in the life safety field, has been a principal member and chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24, as well as a former principal member of NFPA 909 and NFPA 914. He is the...

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