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Archive for July, 2008

Be careful what you ask for. . .

July 2nd, 2008

As featured in the July 2008 edition of “Fire Protection Contractor” magazine

FPC Cover July 2008

I first want to state that I am a big proponent for training and certification programs in our industry. I believe we have an obligation to increase the professionalism in how we deliver products and services. I have always taken this serious. I was fortunate that I started my career with a company that encouraged professional growth and as a result, I (along with others) was able to complete all the examination requirements for NICET certification in fire sprinkler layout early in my career. However, I also learned there were many in the fire sprinkler field who felt the pursuit of certification was a waste of money and time. This surprised me somewhat because I believed then, and even more so today, that supporting certification is one way of demonstrating our commitment to our profession. At the same time, I admit that while working on my personal certification the motivation was not entirely about taking the high road. My practical side also believed that if NICET certification really “caught on,” it might become more difficult to obtain—so get it out of the way early.

Of course, NICET certification or any credential is just one part of career development and by itself does not make an engineer, layout technician, or inspector professional but it is a big part. As a result, over the years I have encouraged professional development in my company as well as the industry. I have authored training materials, taught seminars, served on committees and participated in the code making process. I share this only to demonstrate that I am not simply an observer in the process of training and certification but an active participant.

Over the years, obtaining NICET certification has certainly become necessary in the fire protection industry. A number of state and local jurisdictions now require certification to obtain a fire sprinkler contractor’s license, qualify for a Certificate of Competency, or be named as a Responsible Managing Employee. Many jurisdictions require working plans to be signed by a certified layout technician, the contractor to have a certified technician on staff or individuals to be certified in order to obtain a permit or license to perform inspections and testing. The objectives behind these rules are worthy and I agree with most of the arguments for having such requirements. However, all of us involved in the industry must be mindful there are unintended consequences–some of them serious.

As the CEO of a large organization that has NICET certified technicians in all the fire protection sub-fields I deal with some of these unintended consequences on a regular basis. In addition, I occasionally serve as an expert in litigation which often involves certified technicians and as a result see consequences that others face.

One consequence includes exasperating an already serious shortage of certified technicians and the high costs of developing and training to meet this shortage. For example, several states have enacted requirements for all inspectors of water based systems to be certified (level 2 or 3). This has created and continues to create a serious challenge to keep inspection costs as low as possible for the building owner because an inspector cannot work alone until certified (up to 5 years depending on the certification level required). This will force contractors to often use two inspectors (one certified and one trainee) on even the simplest inspections where one inspector could do the job. The increased costs will be borne by the contractor or passed on to the customer. In reality, this requirement and the associated costs could cause even fewer companies to invest in training because of the long payback time (up to 5 years) thus creating a more severe labor shortage as contractors resort to poaching certified inspectors from each other.

In addition to a shortage of certified technicians, our industry is suffering a shortage of qualified workers in general. This is particularly acute where jurisdictions have no alternative to NICET certification. There are a number of qualified inspectors, layout technicians, and others who simply struggle with the NICET format. I know solid experienced technicians who cannot pass the examination requirement for one or two required work elements (out of dozens) and as a result cannot obtain certification. NICET plans to rectify this somewhat with a new test format, but in the meantime, many qualified individuals will be forced out of an already inadequate work force. A number of jurisdictions have addressed this by using NICET as an option in lieu of some other measuring tool(s) such as a written exam or practical test administered by the jurisdiction or other entity. Having an alternative to NICET certification for a technician to demonstrate competency is something that I believe all jurisdictions should consider.

One of the more serious potential consequences concerning certification involves the inspection and testing of water based fire protection systems. NFPA 25 is the universally accepted standard covering the maintenance of sprinkler systems. It is adopted by many jurisdictions and is the basis for most of the requirements that are in effect throughout the industry. However, it is widely misinterpreted by contractors, jurisdictions, and owners. The scope of NFPA 25 is not intended to reveal design and installation deficiencies. It is a maintenance standard in which the main purpose is the elimination of system failures that occur from a lack of maintenance. However, when a system failure results in litigation it is a common tactic of plaintiffs to raise design and installation issues. Many contractors have long incorporated strict processes in performing inspections and tests to stay within the scope of NFPA 25. In fact, when design or installation issues are raised, contractors often point out that the technicians are not trained nor qualified to identify design and/or installations issues. It has been an effective defense against unwarranted liability.

NICET certification changes this. A certified inspector has demonstrated some level of competency in areas such as hazard identification, commodity classification, types and methods of storage, sprinkler area of coverage, proper use of sprinklers, and so forth. This should signal to the contractor that it is more important than ever to be very clear in proposals and agreements regarding the scope of services and to verify that the customer fully understands the proposed scope. However, the contractor must still be prepared for the challenges that will come with litigation and questions regarding the inspector’s “duty” to point out problems whether or not the issue is within the scope of the inspection or test.

Certification programs are here to stay. This is a good thing but the prudent contractor or manager must consider what these certifications mean for their business and how to recognize and address the possible negative consequences that result. Do not wait until it is too late.