Have you ever been in an argument with your spouse and they bring up an incident or issue that happened last year? When that incident is brought up, have you ever had trouble even believing it happened let alone the way they said it happened? Imagine this same situation regarding a fire code issue but in court, in front of a judge and jury and then let's say thousands or maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars hang in the balance of your accurate recollection of an incident.
Reports are the method we use to properly document what we saw, what we asked or directed to have happen, and what we did. Without reports, the "we said, they said" game can get real ugly.
Accurate, clear and concise reports are one of the main staples of our job. As a manager of a fire prevention bureau, it is critically important that you understand everything you can about reports. This includes:
- When to write them
- How to format them
- How to file them
- How long to keep them
- What your jurisdictional rules and procedures are regarding their use
As the manager it is also important that you emphasize to your staff how important these documents are, and what your stance is on managing them. Having been in this business for a few years, we can assure you that your organization's report quality will degrade unless you have regular discussions about them, have specific polices and procedures regarding their completion and enforce these policies and procedures. When workloads are heavy and everyone is moving fast, it becomes very easy to rush through report writing, covering the basic issues but missing the details necessary for accurate defense or recollection two, three or more years down the road.
Rules of Report Writing
When should you write a report? A report should be written any time you visit with a client or customer with regard to an official visit or discussion regarding fire code requirements or interpretations. Basically, any time you talk to someone, giving specific fire code or regulatory direction you should fill out a report.
How do we format them? The report format can be fairly easy to construct, but you do want to follow the basics of technical communication. Answer the questions: who, what, where, when, why and how. The "who" should detail who is involved: you and the business owner or manager and any other people who may have been involved. The "what and why" is the reasons why you are there, conducting a visit or fire code inspection and what specific violations have been found. It should also detail what you want them to do, to make things right. The "where" should detail the location of the violations, including the basic address and facility as well as the specific site location, for example: "...in the short basement hallway near the kitchen." As far as "when", you should also document the time you were there and for how long. It should also include how long they have to correct the violations. The "how" should document exactly the steps that must be accomplished in order to comply with code requirements.
How you actually lay out the report should be based on the users and the customers, in a way that makes the most sense for the best communication.
Filing is critical. You may choose to arrange by address, date or violation or maybe even by inspector. Whatever method you find best for locating the accurate information timely and efficiently should be the driving force. Remember, files will typically remain untouched for years. However, when you get jammed up or you become questioned due to problems that will be when you will need every piece of documentation you can find. If you are not careful in your filing and when you least expect it, you will also likely discover you have very little to none of the information you actually need. That is certainly not a position you want to be in.
How long should you keep records of inspections or reports? This question is one to be directed to your legal counsel. There is a lot of conflicting information, whether it is from policy or local legislation, state law, etc. The most common timelines are either three or seven years. Again, this is dependent upon what your legal counsel suggests. Keep in mind, as it often happens, you won't need the information within the year of your inspection but in the tail end of your required documentation filing date. Time and time again we have had to testify or research issues that are several years old. Having accurate reports in the only saving grace in trying to defend your position or develop a solution to a problem.
If you don't have specific rules and regulations for you or your staff to follow, you will likely loose accurate information and details that will be problematic in the future. Consult with your legal counsel, and your city and fire department administrations to develop the best possible practices and consistent methods for report record keeping. These practices and policies will help guarantee accurate information gathering, information archiving and detailed recall in the future if you need it. There are a lot of critics and professional witnesses out there who only want to discredit and invalidate your capabilities as a fire prevention manager or supervisor. Insufficient reports also reflect poorly on the inspector who will likely be the person called as a witness. Do all you can now to protect your future interests and protect you and your department from unwanted embarrassment and a lack of credibility.
BRETT LACEY, a Firehouse.com 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 Firehouse.com 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. They also presented a webcast titled Fire Prevention Applications on Firehouse TrainingLIVE. To read their complete biographies and view their archived articles, click here. You can reach Paul by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.