Competence And Communication

Recently, I read an article in American School and University magazine by Tom Tapper that discusses competence and communication. Although his article focuses on education, it caused me to consider what the words “competence” and “communication” mean in our fire alarm systems profession. 

In the design and installation world, we define competence as the mastery of the skills needed to perform our work efficiently and correctly. If you own or manage an electrical contracting operation, what does competence mean to you? Do you use it to define a technician’s skills and abilities and, therefore, their value to your company? Who or what determines a technician’s competence? Are you in control of your technician’s competence, or is it a natural ability?

By focusing on your technicians’ educational and motivational needs, you are able to control competance in your organization. The competency of today’s fire alarm technician must exceed whether he or she knows how to wield a screwdriver and a pair of lineman’s pliers. The technician installing an addressable analog fire alarm system must understand the essential programming requirements of such a system.

To ensure this programming competence remains high, concentrate on regular hands-on training and ensure that you standardize on a specific manufacturer. Standardizing will also help minimize the expense of stocking a wide variety of system components for repair and replacement.

I often hear arguments from owners and managers who oppose this idea because of fear that the equipment supplier will feel he or she can charge more based on the fact you won’t “shop” his price. If you feel this way about your supplier, find another with whom you can build a better relationship based on trust. 

By standardizing on a single (acceptable) manufacturer, you will save money on every installation. All of your technicians will become familiar with the equipment’s installation requirements, thus becoming more efficient when installing it. Additionally, the fire alarm control programming will become more efficient because you will not have confused the issue by switching products every time someone has a lower price. Better system operational reliability is yet another bonus because of this installation consistency.

In our profession, communication can mean many things, but here I am writing about interpersonal communication. Focus on telling your technicians everything they need to know to enable them to do their job correctly and efficiently. 

This communication includes providing the training your technicians need in the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code and National Electrical Code to keep them abreast of new requirements and thoroughly understand existing ones. But communicating this information is just one component of helping them become more competent. Their motivation is the other critical factor.

Sometimes, the only motivation technicians need will come in the form of a promotion or increased pay. But many young technicians today look for a different kind of motivation. For those individuals, you may need to emphasize the fact that they provide life safety to the occupants in the buildings where they install fire alarm systems.

Your communication ability extends to your customers, too. In this case, effective communication begins with actually listening as they express their needs. Having listened carefully, communicate back to the customer how you plan to meet those needs.

You also need to better understand what the customer believes is most important. Does he or she want you to install a code-compliant system? Probably, but does that desire represent the customer’s most pressing concern? 

You must communicate that you will provide a code-compliant system and ensure the installation will be completed on time and will not adversely affect the owner’s expected occupancy date. This explanation satisfies the customer’s primary concern of opening the operation on time. Once you communicate your understanding of the customer’s needs, you can move the focus from price to performance.

You also need to employ your communication skills when you write proposals. Never assume you have provided all the information the customer needs to make a decision by simply giving a price and a statement that you will meet code requirements. Set yourself apart by effectively telling the customer how your competent technicians and your standard equipment will result in a cost-effective, proper, and on-time fire alarm system installation. 

Provide examples of other similar projects where your performance ultimately saved your customer money and increased value.

Make your ultimate goal to become known for your clear communication and competence.

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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