A Jar of Honey

Sept. 18, 2007
The shear magnitude of our fire fatalities and economic losses year after year, should remind us all that Americans deserve better.

Last month, I borrowed Francis Brannigan's famous quotation "Know Your Enemy", as the title of my article. This current article is intended to be the continuation of the concepts presented in the last.

Briefly, in the last article I explained that we should push Brannigan's concept even further, considering that the problem doesn't start with the building; it starts with the construction codes. I expressed that our real enemies then were the ones who allow such buildings to be built with little regard for the occupants' safety, and even less regard for the firefighters' safety in the first place. In recognizing the negative connotation of the word "enemy", even if it was used in an analogy, I explained that in my mind it doesn't exclusively mean prolonged antagonistic relationships and, if anything at all, it calls for more focus on diplomacy and negotiations to address the issues. Simply stated, I don't view sprinkler opponents as our mortal enemies in a classical term, but as adversaries that we must defeat with sound logic and science in the various code arenas.

In this article I want to propose that it might behoove us to diversify our tactical approaches in dealing with our well respected adversaries in the code development arenas. I would like to suggest that, as fire professionals, we could and should learn to apply some of the same basic principles that have well protected our national interests in the turbulent global affairs during the past half a century. No, I don't mean merely reliance on shear strength; but also, and even more importantly, on the diplomatic skills to resolve tensions with our adversaries without compromising our principles.

Not wanting to sound too pompous, I think that the age old saying "you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar", best explains my intent in this article.

Our country's recent history shows that clearly there is no such thing as a permanent enemy. In the overall scope of world affairs and with the perspective of time, it is clear that we have had periods of strained relationships; and at times, even outright hostilities with our adversaries. But then at the end, we mended fences with them and they became our allies. And then comes yet another adversary, and this cycle goes on and on.

It started with our inception as a nation. We were not too happy with England back in 1776, and fought for our independence, but now they are our closest ally. We pounded our mortal enemies, Japan and Germany, in World War II. But then through our Marshall Plan, right after the war, we helped them rise from the ruins, and rebuilt them to the strong economic competitors and great allies that they are now.

During the Cold War era, the Soviet Union and China were considered our enemies. Yet, while fully involved in the Arms Race, we had the Grain Policy with the Soviets, giving them wheat in the early 70s, and at the very same time we were involved with them in the ICBM negotiations and the SALT treaties. And of course, President Nixon's famous Ping Pong diplomacy that improved our relationship with China, resulting in the great level of current economic interactions with them.

Negotiations and diplomacy are more effective when both sides recognize the strength of the other, they are aware of their own weaknesses, and mindful of the consequences and outcomes of their actions. Negotiation doesn't mean that we have abandoned our principles; but that we are pursuing our interests through diplomatic means. It doesn't mean that we have to discontinue all our other efforts, tactics, and strategies in dealing with our adversaries; it is in addition to those efforts.

No, I am not suggesting abandonment of our fire and life safety goals or even a strategic shift in our policies and approaches toward our well respected opponents in the code development arenas, but merely a tactical adjustment. We should continue, and even increase all our efforts, in enhancing life safety and fire protection requirements through the construction code development processes.

For example, a few months ago at the International Code Council (ICC) code hearings in Rochester, despite being short of the 2/3 required majority, we received 56% of the votes in support for the residential fire sprinkler proposal. That was indeed a great accomplishment attesting to the success of our efforts. I believe that the opposing 44% of building officials in Rochester were not our enemies, but our public servant peers; who at that particular moment in time, and on this particular issue, happen not to see eye to eye with us. Then for us to succeed, we must pursue our efforts relentlessly and participate in the code development process even more vigorously.

What else can we do to bring about the support of the remaining building officials in the ICC to support our efforts? Well, maybe we should also be looking at it from their point of view, and see what we can do to help them with their efforts. Why can't we scratch their backs and help them, and then have them helping us? After all, as public servants, regardless of being building official or fire chiefs, we are in it together to build for a safer environment and protect our communities.

After all, if it is all about the safety of our public we are tasked to protect, then why don't we put all our differences asides and work together, not only locally (which we tend to do well most of the times), but even more importantly nationally?

Here is an example. We in the fire service have the national Fire Prevention Week every October. And the building officials have their Building Safety Week every May. But why two separate events? These are basically the same safety concepts and principles, and yet we have them separately, six months apart. Why? How many of us on the fire service side have formally participated in the Building Safety Week events locally? And by the same token, how many of the building officials have done the same and participated in the Fire Prevention Week events in their local jurisdictions? Why should we be divided, when we both serve the same master, the public?

These are the core questions that both the fire chiefs and building officials need to evaluate in detail and answer. This is about both of us all, building officials and fire chiefs. We must recognize our professional obligation to work together in full cooperation with the common goal of reducing our annual national fire fatalities and fire losses that burden our nation. The shear magnitude of our fire fatalities and economic losses year after year, should remind us all that Americans deserve better than what we have been offering them.

This is more than the sophomoric quarrels and the code development skirmishes that has existed for the last eight years between NFPA and ICC. As a proud member of both these organizations, and as an end-user, I do blame them both equally for dividing us and imposing such a tremendous gap upon us. But then even though magnified by this unfortunate code development competition, the gap between the fire chiefs and building officials was present even before then.

In their various publications ICC has identified the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) as one of their four "strategic partners". I think it is indeed great to have a very good, civilized and professional relationship between the enforcement agency regulating the industry, and the industry being regulated by the enforcers. But then fathoming a strategic alliance between a regulator and regulatee, is a tad awkward, isn't it? And then, what strategy is it based on, and at what price?

Installation of residential fire sprinkler in all new homes would not have any financial impact at all on the building officials. If they don't have a horse in this race, then why should they oppose it, especially, considering that they would have safer communities? Then how else could the opposition of 44% of the building officials to the residential fire sprinkler proposal be interpreted; other than they did not want to "upset the apple cart" and adversely impact NAHB, their "strategic partner", who has a vested interest in their opposition to mandating the residential fire sprinkler requirement?

Quite naturally, as a business, just like thousands of others across the country, NAHB's strategic goal as a trade organization is to increase productivity, reduce costs, and increase profit margins for their members. And, naturally, they want to do it with the least amount of governmental intervention, restrictions, and regulations as possible. That is normal, and is expected of any industry in our country that is regulated by any national standards. What would be strange though, is if their strategy, some how dominated the strategy of their regulators. Wouldn't it?

On their website, ICC has identified their values, their vision of "protecting the health, safety, and welfare of people by creating better buildings and safer communities", and mission "providing the highest quality codes, standards, products, and services for all concerned with the safety and performance of the built environment". Based on their official mission and vision statements and strictly from a public servant's perspective tasked with enhancing fire and life safety and protecting our communities, I believe that ICC can be a natural partner and strategic ally for the fire service. Again, we serve the same master, the public.

As it is in life, if you ignore your partner long enough, he or she might eventually stray; and that applies to the organizations too. And I think that building officials have strayed. But then I don't blame them if they ask us, what have you done for us lately? In this affair on the other hand, NAHB has spent tremendous amount of time, efforts, and resources to flourish this courtship with ICC.

Creating that strategic partnership is the responsibility of both sides. But, I ask my peers in the fire service, how much effort have we focused on creating that strategic partnership? In recent years, the Fire and Life Safety Section (FLSS) of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) has taken great strides to bridge this gap between the fire service and the building officials. But we need to do a lot more to bring the building officials back to our corner.

I believe that it is only through better communication and cooperation between the fire chief and the building officials, at all levels, that we can strive for a safer community. We should support their efforts to improving safety, and they should support ours.

With that said, here is a prime example of how we in the fire service, might be able to assist the building officials at the national level. In the April 2007, issue of the Building Safety Journal, in an article titled "Connecting the Dots on Capitol Hill," ICC's CEO, Richard Weiland, explained that "the centerpiece of this year's legislative agenda is a proposal to create a National Code Administration Grant Program". He then further elaborates his concepts and the reasoning behind it.

"Many of us have long believed in the economic benefits of both modern and effective enforcement, and now the value of spending to mitigate damage and loss from natural disasters has been scientifically measured. A recent report from the National Institute of Building Sciences shows, quite dramatically, that for each dollar spent on mitigation, society saves an average of four dollars in response and recovery costs. A national program that authorizes federal competitive grants to provide capital resources to local code enforcement offices is clearly in the best interests of our country and every community in it. Too often, especially in smaller jurisdictions, there simply are not sufficient resources to support robust enforcement of building and safety codes. A grant program like the one the Code Council is proposing can help create self-sustaining local initiatives".

And then in then in the June 2007 Issue of the Building Safety Journal it was stated "In more than 130 meetings on Capitol Hill with Congressional offices, Council leaders promoted the proposal that would provide federal grants to building departments to enhance their code enforcement capabilities".

Why don't we in the fire service put all our legislative muscle and support on the Capitol Hill behind the building officials' national legislative efforts? Who, besides the occupants, would benefit from better code enforcement, well inspected and safer buildings? Our firefighters do. Buildings are our real work environment when we are fighting fires. And we do deserve to have a safer work environment. Remember our nine brothers in Charleston who were killed fighting a fire in a box store.

Why not support the building officials? Wouldn't that be a great national gesture of cooperation between us public servants? Then, wouldn't that generate a mutual understanding of fire safety concerns and cooperation between the two sides? It should be clear that diplomacy and negotiation in this case is definitely feasible and would benefit both sides. But then, even more importantly, the real benefactors are our citizens and our communities all across the country.

In the fire service we are brought up rigid, with strict adherence to our SOPs on how we respond and address various situations; and we have also a tendency to stick to our traditional approaches. At the leadership level though, we need to analyze the situation and determine the most appropriate strategy and tactical approach to address the problem.

That is why I brought up the extensive world affairs examples. To prove that as a nation, we have shown that we have the historical maturity to negotiate with our adversaries and use diplomacy to protect our national interest. In our field of fire and life safety, we could and should learn, and do the same in dealing with our opponents. Undoubtedly, our task is much easier to accomplish, because we are not confronting our mortal enemies, but dealing with our peers and fellow public servants. We have just got to put our hearts in it. That is all.

Back in 1977, through great diplomatic efforts, we were successful in reaching to the other side of the fence, getting Egypt to break rank with the rest of the Arab world and away from the Soviet influence, to sit down with Israel and sign the Camp David peace agreement. Undoubtedly our political and financial efforts in supporting Egypt for the past three decades have been of great value for our national interest in that volatile part of the globe.

Using that analogy on how diplomacy worked in creating a historic alliance shift; why don't we use diplomacy and national cooperation to get the building officials off the fence and onto our side? We need to establish that long-term strategic alliance with them that could best protect our public.

Offer them an olive branch. Give them a jar of honey, and support their legislative efforts. It is a good gesture and a well worth effort on our part. At the end, it would only strength our common bond of striving for a safer community. Remember that it would not only ensure that the public is safer, but that our own firefighters are as well.

Azarang (Ozzie) Mirkhah, Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Protection Engineer (FPE) for the City of Las Vegas Department of Fire & Rescue. His responsibilities include reviewing all building fire and life safety system designs and submittals to insure compliance with the federal, state and local fire and life safety codes and standards. Mr. Mirkhah is also involved in the development of fire & life safety codes and standards for the city.

Mr. Mirkhah is a registered professional engineer with more than 25 years of work experience in the field of fire protection engineering. Mr. Mirkhah joined the Las Vegas Fire & Rescue (LVF&R) more than 12 years ago. Prior to that Mr. Mirkhah worked as a consultant designing fire protection systems for some of the most internationally recognized fire protection consulting firms.

Mr. Mirkhah holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering (BSME), and a Masters degree in Public Administration (MPA). Mr. Mirkhah is a 1999 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Mr. Mirkhah is a Certified Building Official, Certified Fire Inspector, Certified Mechanical Inspector, and Certified Plans Examiner through the International Code Council (ICC).

Mr. Mirkhah is a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and serves on the national NFPA 13 Technical Committee for Sprinkler System Discharge Design Criteria. Mr. Mirkhah is a member of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) a member of the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) - USA Branch. Mr. Mirkhah is also a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). You can contact Mr. Mirkhah at: [email protected]. To view all of Ozzie's articles on Firehouse.com, please click here.

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