Preparing for the Economic Rebound in the Fire Prevention Bureau

When the construction of homes rebounds, departments may be left with little or no resources to perform inspections and plan reviews.

If you are watching the financial markets, it looks like we may be skating along the bottom, getting ready for the slow grind back up. While, in many parts of the country, it looks like this may be a very slow resurgence, it is time for us to start thinking about service delivery for new construction projects and dealing with our ever-increasing existing hazards.

Many fire departments were decimated by the downturn in the economy. During our need to reduce costs, many fire prevention bureaus were downsized if not completely eliminated. Government may be much slower to rebound than the private sector. The healing of local economies will likely be the last to completely rebound. As the economy slowly begins to rebound, so will jobs, construction projects and the ever-present demands for quick plan review turnaround and inspection services. There will be added political pressure to get businesses up and running to feed the local economy.

Let's put our planning chief hats on as if we were operating at an incident. Remember how it is never too early to start the demobilization process? Well, now is the time for us to start the remobilization process. It's not too early to begin thinking how we rebound from our recent losses of resource, personnel and service. For some time now, fire departments and their bureaus have been working off of one to two week strategic plans waiting to see which shoe will drop next, involving cuts of money or personnel or both. Even though the bleeding may still be severe and the pain intense, as leaders we need to start regrouping and planning for the recovery ahead.

Fire marshals have a tough mission now. Not only must we try and continue to provide basic inspection services by addressing critical occupancies and handling various complaints and referrals, we must also figure out how to deal with the future onslaught of pre-design meetings, plan submittals and inspection demands. All of this must be done in a timely fashion so as not to further bog down the improving economy. The landscape of our previous missions may have been drastically altered and may not ever be what it once was. While fire marshal's tongues may still be left with a bitter taste of cuts, remember that staff needs your focus, they need your vision and they need your leadership, now more than ever before. Don't take the budget cuts personally; stay focused on your division's mission.

If your bureau has primary responsibility for inspection services, you may want to consider establishing some company level inspection elements to free the professional inspectors up for other critical demands. If you are still involved in construction document reviews, you may want to consider soliciting third party reviewers that can help you handle what could become an overwhelming plan review workload. You may also consider adjusting fee schedules toward more of a user-based fee approach that gives you more flexibility to charge and hire additional resources if needed. Fire prevention staff will need to be more diverse in their technical skills and not specialize in just one area.

The company inspection option is good from many perspectives. We don't know of too many company officers who don't want to get into buildings to see what is taking place, what the risks are, and identify hazardous conditions or situations. The problematic issue is providing sufficient training so when companies are doing inspections they are adequately prepared and informed on the procedures for addressing various violations. Nothing is worse than sending an ill-prepared company out to do an inspection only to have them make a referral back to your division for follow-up because they were not prepared in what to do. This actually doubles your group's workload, creates multiple visits that inconvenience business owners and dilutes the credibility of the program for the companies.

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