The key to developing a specialty field is either immersing yourself in all of its aspects so you can understand all facets of the new venture or hire trained and experienced people in the field and manage them as you manage your core business.
Think back to when you started in the business of electrical contracting and the approach you took to build your business. You started with relatively small projects you felt comfortable with and, as your experience and confidence grew, you bid and completed larger and larger projects.
While becoming proficient in your trade, you learned the art of communicating and “selling” your expertise. You developed relationships with owners, electrical engineers and electrical inspectors. The inspectors and engineers would often recommend you to others because your work was high quality and you knew the NEC.
You made every effort to set yourself and your company apart from the competition. Developing a fire alarm system installation division is no different. As in your core business, clear communication is the key to growth. It forms the foundation of all successful job completions.
You may have found communicating with the fire official (the authority having jurisdiction or AHJ) somewhat more difficult than when communicating with the electrical inspector. One of the reasons this can happen is the fire AHJ has had little if any electrical training, unlike the electrical inspector who is normally a licensed electrician. Also, fire officials may have different levels of fire alarm system knowledge.
So how do you set yourself apart in the fire alarm field? Remember all communications must be built on trust.
Do you have a reputation for calling for a final inspection without being ready? Do you follow codes and standards or do you have the reputation of one who is always cutting corners? Do you confront the inspector or embarrass him or her in front of their peers?
The AHJ can be your best ally or your worst enemy. Build trust by showing your proficiency in not only performing quality installations but by demonstrating your understanding of the National Fire Alarm Code requirements and its applications.
Building strong relationships with code officials and engineers who trust your abilities and professionalism will help you build a strong business base.
The engineer wants a contractor who understands the importance of a fire alarm system and knows how to install it in a code-compliant manner. You can build relationships with engineers by assisting with code interpretations and being a liaison between the engineer and the fire official.
You can build relationships with the fire officials by getting to know them before you need a project approved.
You can provide training to the fire official by sponsoring inspectors to seminars, conducting seminars or providing fire alarm system training manuals to fire inspectors.
Become a code source for the fire official, available to answer or find the answers to code questions so you become known as the expert in your area.
Each person in the installation chain must be committed to “doing the job right.” And all sides must work together to understand each other's concerns.
What is the best way to communicate? In writing. When you discover the system specifications and design drawings have noncode-compliant issues, inform the engineer and offer to help find alternatives.
Ensure the fire alarm system equipment you buy is listed for fire alarm system use and does not require “jury-rigging” to make it work.
In your core business, you have found suppliers who consistently outperform others so you stick with them. You have realized if you continue to use a specific product or brand, you and your electricians become more efficient in the installation of that product or brand thus saving time and money.
The fire alarm systems business is no different. Find a good supplier who offers quality shop drawings and submittals and has experienced technical staff to help you avoid the common pitfalls that occur in fire alarm system installations. The availability of the supplier's technical staff will also help to ensure that the fire alarm system will work as required. The AHJ will be impressed your systems work as they are supposed to and your acceptance tests run smoothly.
Remember these key factors:
• How you say something is as important as what you say.
• Adversarial relationships do not work.
• Don't wait for a crisis situation to discuss the problem or issue.
• Discuss all changes necessary during the installation before they are started.
• Avoid surprises.
By communicating clearly and being proficient in you work, your fire alarm systems installation business will grow. 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.