Preparing for the Economic Rebound in the Fire Prevention Bureau

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.

Third party reviews can be an excellent method for doing or assisting in plan reviews. A frequent use of this strategy is for very complex projects. This allows the third party firm to work through all the problematic design and code questions, freeing up your reviewers or engineers to concentrate on those projects that are good-to-go for permit. Having a competent third party reviewer also helps lower the stress level in making sure that complex projects are designed and constructed properly. The down side of using a third party construction document reviewer is the fire department may be loosing input in critical issues such as fire department access. Typically third party reviewers do not have the benefits of the entire history of the project and may be coming late into the process. In many cases, the fire department will still need to be actively involved in the project.

Adjusting fee schedules can be a political hot bed if you don't think it through. In the past, the development and construction community didn't have a lot of issues in paying fees for service. With funds tightening, we must ensure the cost of our service is worth it to the developer and the development process. If you have a need for personnel in order to provide timely service, then talk to your design and construction folks. Generally if you can prove better turnaround times on plan review or inspections by adding folks they will support you. Permit fees are a pain for everyone, but if you let those making the payments be involved in the fee structure process, they can be your strongest allies if it actually improves the process for them.

Moving remaining staff to generalist positions rather than specialty assignments can also be a reasonably good strategy. Obviously it is better when we can have specialized inspectors concentrate on specific occupancies such as hospitals, schools, hazardous materials locations and the like. However, when we don't have enough staff, the best option may be to get everyone up to speed on handling everything as best they can. While this maybe not comfortable to them at first and may require a paradigm shift, the benefits will be more positive than you may think. A fire prevention bureau staff that understands why these types of changes occur can go a long way to make the solutions and remedies relatively painless and very positive.

During change, the fire prevention personnel will need to lean on the fire marshal and rely on his or her leadership. Fire marshals must communicate their thoughts, listen to staff's input and provide a team oriented solution. As fire professionals we know the importance of fire prevention and must stay the course. The citizens and policy makers we work for will be honorably served and grateful for your efforts.

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: