Training - What Makes us the Experts?

April 25, 2007
As fire marshals, we are frequently engaged in conversations with developers, contractors and city officials who are questioning our need for enforcing certain requirements, asking for certain things or the performance of our jobs in general.

As fire marshals, we are frequently engaged in conversations with developers, contractors and city officials who are questioning our need for enforcing certain requirements, asking for certain things or the performance of our jobs in general. Sometimes these conversations do not go the way we would like because we are stuck trying to "crawfish" (back our way) out of a situation that an inspector or engineer got us into. Typically this situation occurs when a code enforcer requires something that is not a real code requirement but rather an opinion, or objective that one of their peers in another jurisdiction called out. What happens next is hard to take; us wiping egg off our face, the inspector or engineer is called in the office and then leaving work feeling like their bosses don't support them, and the public thinking we just make stuff up.

Training is critical to our professional performance and credibility. Unfortunately, we find the fire prevention division doing most of the training for recruits or the line on things like fire suppression systems, fire alarm systems, foam systems, etc. Why is this? Usually this is because we are the ones who work with these systems the most. Okay, then who trains us? More often than not, we must train ourselves. The sad thing too is that many bureaus don't have very big budgets and trying to keep people in classes, takes lots of time and money. Consequently, it doesn't happen to the degree we would like.

What has helped in cases where budgets and time are lean is assigning inspectors and/or engineers the task of picking one topic a week/month for hourly sessions on a topic of interest and need.

An example would be foam systems. Now, we would propose that if you don't have any petroleum storage facilities with foam systems in your jurisdiction, you may save that as a lower priority item, however, if you have say one tank farm in your jurisdiction that does have a foam system, periodic training on this would be invaluable. Why? Because it probably needs an annual inspection and permit and if you have one farm, you may have other companies looking to build there also. Fact is, this system is likely seldom used (good thing), infrequently looked at and probably handled by that one inspector who commissioned the facility in the first place and since he/she is most familiar with it, they just keep doing the inspection. What happens when that inspector gets promoted or retires? Everyone should be at the same level of training for the sake of consistency and safety.

Certainly, one of our top 10 complaints we get is our department's lack of consistency during inspections. Contractors will pit one inspector against another for requiring certain things and omitting others. This unequal enforcement creates a lack of confidence, a lack of professionalism and adds to confusion within the bureau. Regular training sessions can greatly enhance consistency among inspectors. We would propose that an hour a week discussing "learning's" from various projects or presentations on training topics could save tens of hours in problem resolution and trouble shooting after the fact. This is a classic example of "pay me now or pay me later". Investment in training is well worth the effort. As stated in Loss Control Management by Frank E. Bird and Robert G. Loftus, the principle of Reciprocated Interest verifies this: "People tend to be motivated to accomplish results you want, to the extent you show interest in the results they want to achieve."

If you present training and consistency as being important, such as dedicating time and supporting the effort, staff will come to understand the value and importance of it. Remember though to keep it interesting. Nothing is worse than wasting time, wasting time. By allowing classes to be rotated among all your staff, it not only challenges the individuals to research the topic, but it helps them learn to organize, communicate and become more efficient. This also lends to the Principle of Recognition: "Motivation to accomplish results tends to increase as people are given recognition for their contribution to those results.'

Another often overlooked but very worthwhile educational experience is inviting various guest lecturers to come and speak to your staff. These can include contractors, developers, business leaders etc. Ask them to speak on the impact of fire code enforcement on their businesses. They would love to come and share their experiences, difficulties and challenges in prior dealings with your staff or department. Their insight can be very powerful in helping inspectors or engineers in understanding what implications and impacts their requirements have on the operations of other's businesses. This can help generate some empathy which helps with customer service, but it also lets inspectors understand how the other part of the world works. The guest speakers will be quick to brag about how they were invited to come speak and that will generate lots of valuable mileage in your overall community relationships.

In summary, training is important. Frequently fire prevention bureaus will be left on their own to provide the caliber of training required to provide professional inspection and engineering services. Your bureau has highly talented and skilled personnel who are generally more than willing to research and share what they know with each other. Providing dedicated times and support to this effort will show managements commitment and therefore exemplify how important training and consistency is. Using community experts can not only increase your knowledge base, but generate good will and improve community support for the mission you must perform.

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