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What is Fire Prevention Customer Service?

Anyone who has been involved in fire prevention services for any length of time truly understands the difficulties involved with fire code enforcement. Fire inspectors are sometimes tagged as badge heavy thugs, code geeks, bullies and other terms not suitable for print. Sometimes these labels may even be warranted! Most of the time it is not.

We have even heard similar comments about fire marshals. One phrase we have heard: "When a fire marshal walks in, the milk curdles and my blood boils." Unfortunately there are many individuals who are unaware of the duties, tasks and responsibilities fires marshals or inspectors shoulder on a daily basis. It's a funny job, that of fire prevention and code enforcement. There is no other division in the fire department which generates so many questions and demands so many answers

Fire inspectors and fire marshals are responsible for enforcing the local fire code and referenced or adopted NFPA standards of which well over 250 relate to fire service responsibilities. In addition there are the associated American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards we reference and use. Don't forget about the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and Factory Mutual (FM) listed assemblies or equipment, local laws and ordinances, associated references to companion codes and documents, and not to mention policies and procedures the department uses and enforces. Now let us combine all of this and incorporate the challenge of making all these regulations fit the reality on a job site or in a business. We must respond to code questions in a timely manner. Couple all this with educational awareness and the finesse demanded with professional communication skills and we have a slight understanding of what can go on in the course of a day. To say it simply, sometimes there is no easy answer and it takes time to research the appropriate response. If the research is not done, the codes are often misapplied which creates even more turmoil.

The audience we deal with is generally homeowners, businessmen and women, architects, engineers, politicians, firefighters, utility personnel, small children, senior citizens, etc. The skill required to communicate the same message effectively to this plethora of individuals is quite a task. It requires patience, knowledge, experience, finesse and dedication to service. It is quite possible that dedication to service is the most significant element of the fire prevention group. Why?

Those assigned the task of fire prevention duties know well the importance of being dedicated. Inspectors have the responsibility of identifying problems and mandating corrections. Unlike the suppression or "hero" division, who are nearly always viewed as the knights in shining armor, inspectors are viewed as a necessary evil, someone who must be listened to but always costs somebody money. It's easy to serve in a division where everyone loves you, but it is quite different to serve in a section where your customers don't necessarily care for you. What then drives someone to work in fire prevention then? It is dedication.

This superior dedication to service should be something all chief officers, city officials, politicians and business owners look upon with respect and appreciation. Unfortunately, there are many in jurisdictions that don't always get it. A few actually comprehend that when fire prevention personnel are supported properly, they accomplish far more in the realm of saving lives, preventing injury and reducing dollar loss than many of the operational functions. What is difficult is measuring and quantifying their work's impact. Are the lives saved when the sprinkler controls the fire and everyone evacuates as important as an EMS save?

The fact is, if you mitigate injury or loss before it occurs, that's where you make your greatest and most economical impact and save. Reacting after the fact will always cost more whether by injury, death or monetary loss. All one has to do to prove this is look at industrial loss statistics. It is just like the medical profession too. Where do we suppose "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" came from? Aren't we seeing heath care providers supporting preventative activities and measures now to address the rising cost of health care?

The recognition code enforcers typically get is negative. We are accused of being too restrictive, making up requirements and never working to help solve problems. We are often accused to demand compliance, just because we said so. Well, those that are in the business know the difference and those who aren't, well, it's just not the case.

As consummate professionals in the field of fire prevention we need to know what our duty and responsibility to customer service is and practicing it is a must. It is imperative we recognize anytime we open our mouth in the course of our duties, or put pen to paper, we are going to cost somebody money. We acknowledge that our technical background places us in a position to understand why the code calls for what it does and the business owner probably does not. We need to also honor and respect the many bosses we serve from our customers (citizens), our elected officials, our city officials and our chief. We strive to protect everyone's interest and above all else, protect our families, our community members and our fire crews. That is fire prevention customer service!

We need to routinely reflect on how we deliver the messages we do. We should always be empathetic to the difficulties a business owner experiences. We should always be working on behalf of those we are inspecting, exploring problems and considering solutions. There can be a tendency to be very rigid in our enforcement because it is more comfortable for us to follow black and white regulations; however, it is more important that we flex a little to solve problems, not demand fixes.

The code gives us the flexibility to work toward the intent of the code if there are practical difficulties and alternate means and methods can prevail. Don't be afraid to exercise your talent and training to help solve a business owner's problem. Understand we are not telling you to accept responsibility for fixing anyone's issue. Your responsibility should be to communicate the requirements, the reason for the requirements, and direct them to various solutions that would, at the very least, meet the intent of the code. It is still their responsibility to solve. Remember, being a partner in reaching solution is much more attractive than being an enforcer who throws one's weight around.

Being nice is an interesting fire prevention customer service concept too. We should go out of our way to be as nice as possible to everyone we come in contact with. We should do that regardless of what job we hold. This is especially true since we know we are potentially starting out on a sour note because we are costing someone money. Even if someone is nasty to us, we should set the example by taking the high road.

Our roles as professional experts already put us in a leadership role. We need to set the example, act professional and be nice. When we do this, it makes it extremely hard for anyone to stay upset or be mad. It is important to remember too, that we don't always have to get someone to agree with us. Many times, if we can just get someone to grudgingly go along with what we are asking, we have won! Celebrate that! They can still be upset that they have to do something they would rather not. That is their right! We need to support them though and let them know we recognize their efforts and understand their feelings. Don't make it personal by getting defensive. Just be professional and be proud that you are a leader and that you are serving your mission by providing the best customer service possible.

BRETT LACEY, a Contributing Editor, is the Fire Marshal for the Colorado Springs, CO, Fire Department and a professional engineer. He has over 27 years in the fire service and has served on various technical committees including NFPA 1031, IFSTA committee for Inspection practices, and Fire Detection and Suppression Systems and the Colorado Fire Marshal's Association Code Committee. PAUL VALENTINE, a Contributing Editor, is the Fire Marshal for the Mount Prospect, IL, Fire Department and formerly served as their fire protection engineer. He has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire Protection and Safety Engineering Technology from Oklahoma State University and a Master of Science Degree in Management and Organizational Behavior from Benedictine University and is a graduate from the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Brett and Paul co-authored Fire Prevention Applications, published by Fire Protection Publications. To read their complete biographies and view their archived articles, click here. You can reach Paul by e-mail at: