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Does the Building Official Get Up at 2am

Those that participate in the ICC’s code hearings may have noticed subtle changes in the past few years. Changes that have fire officials in the building code committees and vice versa. I see great cooperation between the two in the national code arena. However, locally we still see the division between the two. In the world of building and fire officials, there has been a long silence between the two parties. Or shall I say, turf battle, to clear this up. Building officials will say this is mine and fire will say no that is ours, whether it is fire alarms, fire sprinklers, dampers, etc. These latter items are both in the building and fire code, so why the battle? Why can’t both departments put forth a joint effort to benefit the community? Worst of all, contractors are stuck in the middle while the turf wars are settled. To answer the quote above, cooperation between the two isn’t being said or preached enough.

I’ve been in the building official and plan examiner business since 1995. By far, I’m no expert, but I’ve made mistakes and fortunately have learned from them to make relationships between departments and contractors work for me. I’ve worked in jurisdictions where no fire marshal was present and in others that the fire marshal played a major role in new and existing buildings. In areas that a fire marshal wasn’t present, I was constantly consulted in the Fire Code by local fire chiefs and asked for an opinion whether it was outdoor storage, setbacks to LPG tanks, FDC locations, etc. We worked well with our local fire departments and lend them our code knowledge.

Most people outside the code business find code books confusing and intimidating, and my experience with the local fire departments were the same, and they were glad for us looking into the issues and relaying the code language back to them in “English”.

We operated on the philosophy that we could sleep through the night, didn’t have to get up at 2:00 am in the middle of winter to put a fire out. Later on, I was with a building department in a city that had a full time fire marshal and two fire inspectors. Not only were they grateful for a building official that shared plans for them to review, they were taken back on my knowledge in the fire code and the building code. Both parties learned so much from each other. While I learned more into the fire service, i.e.: how engines and ladder trucks approach a fire, standard operation procedures, the effectiveness of different nozzles, sprinkler operations, etc, they learned building construction from the ground up, formal plan review procedures, and where the building code played in and where they could step in be more a team.

A team of the building and fire department in plan review, inspections and enforcement is the best defense for the city or municipality. Our team was faced with many challenges in a highly politicized town. However, after the first few battles, opinions changed. They changed because we were fair, we were proactive, and we didn’t come on site with any last minute surprises. We did our reviews in conjunction, shared our comments, and sent them out as one. We both felt we had jurisdiction over new and existing sprinkler systems. Did we confuse our contractors with our differences? No, we got together and did the underground, above ground, rough piping, and final inspections as a team. We got to the point as a team that if an inspector that had to be there, couldn’t be there, he or she could trust the others to make their inspection report complete. Instead of forcing the contractor to be perform the tests again. We were not perfect, if you were getting that picture, but we built a good reputation, and if we had sprung a violation on a contractor that we missed in the past, our reputation smoothed the way. Instead of the contractor beating a path to the city manager, they, after a while knew we weren’t out to get them. If you’re a building department or fire department at odds with the other, you’re missing out on great knowledge and lack the total team experience all contractors are expecting. Extend the olive branch, at least from 8am to 5pm.

Some of the Expert of the Day (EOD) questions we get floor me. I or we get numerous questions or situation where the contractor is asked to install sprinklers on the balconies and decks of the residential project they are working on from the local AHJ…at the final inspection, when residents are waiting to move in. Internally I get angry, not at the contractor asking the question or looking for a solution, but at the local AHJ’s. Why? Something went wrong inside City Hall or at the Fire Department most likely. I am one of those pesky building or fire officials, and I expect more professionalism from my fellow reviewers and inspectors. Many times, I’ll ask, “Why wasn’t this caught at plan review”? Many times the exasperated contractor says, “I don’t know”, or “Well, it’s not done yet”. Cough, if the plan review is not done by the time the Certificate of Occupancy is requested there is a problem(s). Tell me this AHJ’s, how can you inspect a project without approved plans? Plans that contain the hydraulic calculations, the cut sheets of all the installed equipment, and the proposed locations of the entire pipe.

How can you arrive on site, walk through and give the thumbs up, when you haven’t got the ok from the plan reviewer and have those plans on site to double check? I’ve got a member contractor on the phone, saying, “Is this true? Do sprinklers have to be out on the balconies?” “Yes, it’s in the building code and has been since 2003”. I’m not put out by the contractor; I’m outraged by the fire and building department. Why, do we have to put contractor who buys the permit, which pays our salaries in such turmoil?

Bottom line, we at NFSA want our contractor’s plans reviewed for compliance, and we want them reviewed under the guidelines of the ICC and NFPA in a timely manner. We expect the best out of our contractors, and personally coming from both sides, I see great efforts and practices from our contractors, and great efforts from the plan reviewers. Fire sprinkler contractors usually are behind to start, and we always stress to them, get them to the AHJ as soon as they are done.

I know local AHJ’s and the budgets they face, and I don’t blame them personally, but something has to change. Both professions, the sprinkler and the AHJ, need to communicate to come to solution. The contractor can’t afford the last minute changes, and the AHJ can’t afford the extra time for paperwork, time taken away from other projects, and the “black eye” anymore to their profession. We are proud to represent both the sprinkler contractors and the AHJ’s and stand by as professionals of the industry to help out.

Jeff Hugo is the Manager of codes for NFSA and a registered builidng official in Michigan.

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