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.

  1. Fernando Medina
    August 29th, 2008 at 10:46 | #1

    Russ,
    It was nice reading your Blog. Very informative. You are an amazing individual and an absolutely bright beacon in the Fire Protection industry. Thanks for the NICET Certification write up and information.

  2. Russ Leavitt
    September 5th, 2008 at 10:02 | #2

    Fernando,
    How the heck are you doing? Good to hear from you. Give me a shout so we can get together the next time you are in town. How is the family?
    Russ

  3. Arthur Gould
    June 26th, 2009 at 11:54 | #3

    Russ, I disagree with your assertion NICET II certificate holders be allowed to inspect.

    As of of April 3, 2009 the NICET registry contained the following numbers for water based inspectors.

    NICET Level I 1,164
    NICET Level I 1,244
    NICET Level I 482
    Total 2,890

    Does allowing NICET II holders to inspect increase the number of inspectors for a state?

    It doesn’t appear have as much of an impact as we might think.

    Georgia is one of those states that require Level III to inspect and consequently 83 of the countries 482 (17.2%) Level III’s on the registry live in Georgia. In addition to the Level III’s Georgia has 44 Level I’s and 37 Level II’s.

    Florida requires NICET II to inspect and the impact on Florida’s registry numbers is 196 Level I’s, 178 Level II’s but only 38 Level III’s.

    Adjusting for the total population for Florida’s 18,328,340 Florida has 1 qualified inspector (NICET II or III) per 84,853 population.

    With Georgia’s 9,685,744 population there’s one qualified inspector (NICET III only) out of 116,695 population.

    Of course this doesn’t tell the entire story for while I have nothing published to base it on I think Florida has more sprinkler systems per million inhabitants than Georgia does.

    I do not agree with Florida’s decision to grant inspectors authorizations to NICET II certificate holders because I am thinking of a fitter type with two years total experience and find it hard to believe he can conduct a diesel engine driven fire pump test. In two years he might have done four or five diesel engine pump tests and on the sixth one he is qualified to be running it?

    How about an interim type license? Let’s say NICET II’s can inspect wet systems only or maybe even wet or dry systems only in non storage type facilities freeing up the NICET III’s for the more complex inspections as they gain more experience?

    Near me we inspect a chemical plant that has 44 systems of all types along with a couple large pumps. I can’t believe there’s a single NICET II certificate holder with two years experience that is qualified to inspect that complex.

  4. Arthur Gould
    June 26th, 2009 at 12:14 | #4

    On to another note the real big crunch is going to be in layout technicians when the economy gets moving again.

    We’re not training anyone and what’s even more perplexing is you can’t find anyone that is interested enough to even give it a look as a career.

    And when you do hire how do you train, where do you start? How many months will a trainee work before the company realizes the first dollar out of their efforts? Six months? A year?

    Even in this recession if you were to bus 12 NICET III certified inspector’s into Atlanta and give each one a car for the week I just have to think all 12 would have jobs with good pay and benefits by the end of the week. With the way laws are being written the job is nearly recession proof and nobody is interested.

    Why?

    I bring this up because I’m NICET certified in layout and in the states I am licensed in laws and regulations permit NICET III or IV to perform inspections so even if construction jobs go to zero I’ll still have a job. Where else, what other industry is there, where you can you say something like this?

    For the record I’ve been a layout technician since the mid 70’s and I had to read and study NFPA real close for six months before I felt qualified. Don’t belittle the job, there’s a lot more professionalism to it than most would think until you’ve done it.

  5. Russ Leavitt
    June 30th, 2009 at 07:29 | #5

    Hi Art,
    thank you for your comments. However, I am a bit confused by a couple of things.

    1. I am not sure where you find in the article that I am calling for Level II inspectors be allowed to inspect. I do not propose that any particular NICET level (II or III) for inspections of systems. You wrote about the chemical plant that you inspect. I would take it a step further and state that the most important issue is an individual’s actual ability to do the work needed. Certification (regardless of the level) is just the starting point. A wise service provider is going to make sure that the inspector is qualified for the particular project and the scope that has been contracted. If you read the article again, I am simply pointing out the consequences of a state or jurisdiction requiring NICET certification. I am not calling for a lowering of standards–quite the opposite.
    2. Your last paragraph baffles me. I do not belittle the job of layout techincian. I do not know where that comment comes from. I started in the industry as a layout technician and have held a level IV certifciation since 1990. if you felt qualified after 6 months, you were a lot faster than me.
    The thrust of the article is to spur discussion and thought regarding NICET certification since it is the most recognized organization for setting layout and inspection techician standards in our industry but NICET certification may not always be the best (or only) solution for qualifying individuals. That does not mean that I do not think it is a excellent vehicle.
    I agree with most everything you write and if you look again at my article, you will see that.

    Again, thanks for your comments.
    Russ

    @Arthur Gould

  6. Arthur Gould
    June 30th, 2009 at 12:36 | #6

    Russ,

    At three to six months I was hardly competent but given in 1976 90% of the systems installed were pipe schedule, coupled with the fact all we had were 1/2″ upright and pendent sprinklers, I was actually laying out sprinklers and sizing the pipe pretty much on my own.

    Forgot, we had 17/32″ sprinklers to but that was left to the guys who could do hydraulic calculations the Jack Wood way. Hundreds of old time designers attended one of Jack Woods three day hydraulic calculation seminars at Viking in Hastings, MI.

    In the first year I had lots of excellent supervision and I was fortunate to be taught by one of what I would consider to be the best in the industry. Two, three and four times a day he would drop in to see how I was doing and take the time to tell me what I was doing wrong and allow me to correct my errors. He wouldn’t tolerate anything less than perfection, this sometimes drove me nuts but served me well over the years, but he gave me enough room to learn without getting frustrated.

    At the end three to six months I could lay out a simple system of a few hundred heads, I would get most of it right but it was always checked before it went out the door.

    Point I was making was I doubt a totally green trainee could lay out a system with calculations given after just a few months given all we have to work with today.

    My first NFPA #13 was about 130 pages and maybe 8″x5″ big. If you wore jeans you could fit it in your hip pocket.

    If it’s changed this much in the last 30 years what will the next 30 bring?

    No doubt there are a number of inspectors around the country that do an excellent job while not being NICET certified but NICET certification appears to be the way many states are heading. Not that it will make them better in itself but anyone doing inspecting should be working towards that NICET. It’s a big deal now and going to get bigger.

  7. Jesus M Carrasquillo
    August 21st, 2009 at 09:36 | #7

    Dear Russ,
    I have to tell you that NICET is the greatest certification (in relation to the industry) on earth. Unfortunately it has being underrated by Fire Contractors business owners. Let’s take for example in New Jersey. NJ adopted on 2003 NICET requirements in order to obtain a business license. On the other hand some individuals where grandfather-in because of their track record and experience.
    In my opinion it was the BIGGEST MISTAKE made by the state against the industry. These business owners feel that since they hold a valid license, their technicians do not need their own and that is causing a conflict when inspecting.
    For example:
    A certified inspector notes some deficiencies on the report while a competitor’s non certified technician says the opposite.
    To me it is disgusting within the industry the fact that we criticize each other just to make a buck and keep a customer happy. It is not a well earned dollar. To me is a false claim and should be punishable but since AHJ’S don’t know any better contractors continue to get away with it. AHJ’S should be required to obtain NICET certification as well if they want to keep a job. When I lived in Florida I attended Broward County C.C. and obtained a Fire Marshall License how ever I learned more thru NICET than anything else.
    To all service technicians out there reading, please do not let anyone choose you path. Take action and educate now. Become an asset and a marketable individual nationally not locally.
    God Bless Everyone

  8. Edward Kosakowski
    June 15th, 2010 at 14:23 | #8

    Russ,
    I am looking for some help. Not sure if you will be able to provide it, but here goes. I am looking to find a course to be trained for nfpa 25. I live in New Jersey. Have been searching the internet and coming up empty. Any ideas

  9. February 25th, 2011 at 16:53 | #9

    @Edward Kosakowski
    Chubb instituted a hands on seminar for NFPA 25 but if you are looking to obtain a license you need to become NICET certified.

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