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Today's Economy Can Create an Increase in Fire Protection Deficiencies

Current economic pressures on the business community may force some to take short cuts, including the elimination of maintenance or testing of built-in fire protection systems.

We have been listening to the economic news for months and, unfortunately, it isn't getting better. For fire marshals doing a good job of enforcement, they have most certainly been hearing the woes of businesses and manufacturers about how difficult it is to make ends meet and spend funds for fire code compliance issues. Conversations regarding layoffs and reduced revenue is a daily occurrence. Many architectural and engineering firms are slashing salaries by 20 percent or more just trying to hang onto staff. In many locations, the situation is dire.

The current economic pressures on the business community may force some to take shortcuts in their processes, possibly even eliminating maintenance or testing of the built-in fire protection systems. These economic conditions can create an environment where there is an increase in fire protection deficiencies for us to address. Combine the potential increase in the need for our services with a forced reduction in fire prevention staff, less time and, of course, more work than we can imagine, let alone handle. Perhaps it is time for us to step back and reassess what our mission is and it can be better accomplished.

We exist to help keep citizens and businesses safe. We exist to maintain the quality of life and economic vitality. We exist to protect and serve. We should do all this by providing professional customer service, technical expertise and showing empathy.

We are rigidly trained to enforce code requirements. We spend hours to years learning various aspects of fire behavior, building construction, process flows, and the proper application of various fire detection and suppression techniques. We are paid to find violations or non-compliant situations, identify solutions and require compliance. At the end of their day, fire protection professionals are satisfied they are making a positive impact to make the community safer and feel good about accomplishing their mission.

But how does the business owner or manager feel about achieving code compliance? What is their view of the fire protection professional and the organization he or she represents? If we were nice and cordial with our enforcement duties, they may feel respectful but irritated by the expense, frustrated by the intrusion and likely more often then not, having little appreciation or understanding of how we just helped them. Sure we may understand the importance of compliance and the impact it has on their safety and firefighters, but do they? Did we take the time to explain the why this is required and the intent of the code?

Consider the economic situation today. How many businesses are laying off personnel in your jurisdiction? How many businesses cannot make expansions to their facilities or purchase new equipment? How many businesses cannot secure a loan? How many businesses are loosing vendors or suppliers of their raw materials due to the recession? Let's now throw in a visit by someone in our office asking for fire code compliance that will cost $50,000 or more, how palatable is this cost to the owner or manger? It's probably not palatable at all. Experienced fire protection professionals have learned no one budgets for fire prevention or fire code compliance!

Here is an excerpt of a portion of a letter that we just got from a local business owner. The owner has a warehouse-type facility housing two tenants that requires a major fire sprinkler upgrade due to a change in occupancy and commodity. This upgrade is going to cost approximately $125,000. This is part of what he wrote.

"I am told it will take three or four months for me to secure a loan, two months for system design and another two or three for installation and repairs. The larger issue is neither my tenants (X and Y) nor I can afford to absorb the tremendous costs associated with the sprinkler system upgrade requested by the City at this point in time. I can't help but believe that the city isn't also under tremendous economic pressure; budgets being slashed, departmental layoffs and increasing tax delinquencies. It is my and many economist's opinion that the worst is still before us. Many more layoffs, many more foreclosures, many more companies going out of business.

In my opinion the city has the opportunity to help its business community and citizens survive this depression by allowing a two year window to initiate sprinkler system upgrades. I respectfully request this of the city leaders."

What do we do now? We can take the position we would when things are "normal" or going well, requiring compliance as soon as possible. This would, at least, likely cause angst for the business owner. It could cause very ill feelings and resentment toward our efforts if not the whole city. It possibly means the owner could assess his tenants the apportioned costs of the upgrade that could force them out of business or force them to find another location to lease. In either case, this could cause tremendous loss of revenue by the owner, potentially forcing them out of business as well. If this happened, how would we grade ourselves with regard to keeping the business safe? How would we grade ourselves over maintaining a quality of life and economic vitality? Likely our grade would be pretty low. Maybe we failed in some eyes?

However, what if we took a position of empathy and discussed with the owner the intent of the code? We could discuss the reasoning behind the code, the impact that a non-compliant facility has on firefighter safety and reassure them how important their business is to the community and our department. Does the owner and tenant understand how the existing sprinkler system is designed to operate and what the consequences would be if a fire where to occur in the present situation? We know the benefits of properly designed systems and how quickly a business can recover from a fire in a properly protected facility, but does the owner understand? What are the insurance implications for them if they do not comply and have an incident? Remember, who pays our salary and who do we actually work for? Take the position as if you were an employee of that company or facility and need to explain to upper management the need for compliance.

An empathetic approach does not mean we do not accomplish the mission, enforce the code or do our job for compliance. It means we work with the owner and tenants to meet the intent of the code. We build our fire protection coalition with them. The process can be pretty simple:

  1. Identify relevant and important safety hazards and risk to your department's fire suppression personnel. Train them on the location of the identified hazard and make sure they have an up-to-date pre-fire survey with notations of potential deficiencies or hazards noted because of non-compliant conditions. This information may alter their initial fire suppression tactics and reduce the likelihood of firefighter injuries.
  2. Work with, and partner with the owner to reach an agreeable time frame for compliance. You always have the authority to seek immediate compliance. Consult your attorney and work out a time frame for various objectives to be met. The objectives should be reducing the hazard and providing an increased level of safety. Condition all of these benchmarks by stating that failure to hit a benchmark in time may result in immediate compliance with the fire code or other penalties. Remember too, the fire code has no specific time limits. In fact, it allows a reasonable amount of time to abate the hazard. Reasonable is really determined by the Authority Having Jurisdiction.
  3. Offer your assistance and suggestions to make the facility as safe as possible while waiting for compliance to be achieved. Take an active role in assisting them, not pressuring them. Utilize your expertise to find solutions for them. In our example, is it possible to reduce the amount of commodity stored? Can they change the storage arrangement to reduce the sprinkler demand? Have we evaluated the sprinkler contractor's proposal for compliance to see if other more economical solutions exist? As we stated before, take the view of working for the building owner to solve the problem. Consider this as your company and use your expertise to achieve compliance in an economical fashion.

These three simple steps will likely win you a supporter, go a long way in selling code requirements and ultimately may do more to protect the quality of life and economic vitality of the community than forcing the sprinkler requirements in an unreasonable time frame. Bankruptcy or foreclosure can have a similar effect as a catastrophic fire. After all, what is the frequency of warehouse fires in your jurisdiction, particularly in ones you are regularly inspecting? Don't shy from doing your job but be reasonable regarding the intent. At the end of the day, we all want compliance and a safe community for the citizens we serve. Some days are just getting longer!

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: