Be The Shepherd, Not The Sheep

Before you read this column, please read “It’s a Trap!” by Wayne Moore on page 62. Wayne shared it with me, and I would like to continue that conversation. This is a topic near and dear to me, and it is important to our industry.

One issue he brings up concerns the concept that, if you try to do more than the minimum code requirements, you will not get the job. While this is true to some extent, it will stay that way unless we initiate changes ourselves. So how can we do that? We can’t force the owner to pay more than they are required to, can we? We can’t make the engineer of record or the general contractor agree that a minimum system is not enough, can we? 

Let’s address one real question: Who is typically your biggest competitor? The low bidder, of course! And we all know that the low bidder is always the most qualified to perform the job, right? Wrong! 
So how do we fix that? There are a number of ways, beginning with educating the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). AHJs are struggling in today’s economy, and the first thing that gets cut is their training budget, so we need to help with that. An unqualified fire inspector will not recognize the installation problems most, if not all, of the time.

When I was a contractor, the electrical inspector was not required to inspect our fire alarm wiring, so it was left to the fire inspector. As Wayne writes, fire inspectors usually are not trained on proper wiring requirements. And if these same inspectors let things slide due to lack of knowledge or experience, our buddy—the unqualified low bidder—gets away with his shoddy installation every time. We can help fix that.

After every final inspection, I used to ask the fire inspectors if they had a few minutes so I could show them something they may have missed during the final test or maybe explain why we did things a certain way.

Now, as much as I wanted to help educate them, I will admit I had ulterior motives. I wanted to educate them, so when they were inspecting my competition’s job, they would catch their problems. Sooner or later, if we keep making things more difficult for these unqualified low bidders, they will go away. I knew contractors who did not want to work in certain jurisdictions because they were “too tough.” Ah, what a shame. This is one way we can get to the position of doing more than minimums or at least getting the installations done right.

The fire service industry today has many concerns about nuisance fire alarms. They feel that this is an industry problem. That is partially true, but it is not the entire issue. They are trying to find every way they can to save money to overcome budget cuts, and this is only one means to address that problem. This process of educating the inspectors can help improve reliability, thus reducing nuisance alarms.

You provide training for your installers and technicians, correct? I’m sure you do some in-house training and send your employees to seminars. Why not invite inspectors to your in-house training? This will accomplish two things. One, it will teach them the same things you are teaching your employees. Two, it will acquaint the inspectors with your employees, and vice versa. Many installers and technicians feel threatened by the inspectors because they don’t know them and don’t understand their perspective. By making these introductions, both sides will feel more comfortable with each other, and it will show on the job.

Now that your technicians are at ease with the fire inspectors, it will be even easier for them to help teach them a few things on each job. I am sure you will find that most fire inspectors will appreciate this effort and look forward to your next installation.

A benefit of this is that your company will be seen as the good guys. As word gets around the fire inspectors’ community, your company will be respected, and you will become their experts.

You can help spread the word that there is a lot of free training out there, mainly through webinars provided by industry associations. Most offer free membership to AHJs, so they have access to these training opportunities.

In his article, Wayne also raises the issue that inspectors may not be career fire prevention personnel and that they start out as firefighters. Some don’t want to be inspectors and want to go back to fighting fires, so not all of them will get the message. We can’t fix all the problems at once, but we have to start somewhere. If we do nothing, we will all lose. So let’s educate them and reap the benefits.

About the Author

Thomas P. Hammerberg

Life Safety Columnist
Thomas P. Hammerberg, SET, CFPS is president of Hammerberg & Associates Inc. He serves as Director of Industry Relations for the Automatic Fire Alarm Association (AFAA) Inc. and represents the association on a number of NFPA committees, including the...

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