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.

Fire Protection: 30 Years Back and 30 Years Ahead

June 24th, 2008

There have been numerous changes in the past 30 years that centered on advances in technology. Manual hydraulics gave way to computer generated hydraulics; drawing boards and triangles turned to CAD. Design criteria choices expanded on the advances in sprinkler applications such as residential, ESFR, extended coverage, and special applications. However, I want to focus on how the “business” of contracting has changed in the past 30 years and what we may see in the next 30.

Labor

30 years ago virtually all fire sprinkler work with the exception of system layout was performed utilizing organized labor. In the 1980’s, the construction industry began an evolution to open shop that resulted in unprecedented growth in work performed by non-signatory companies. All regions of the country now have a strong open shop presence. Of course, all change has consequences. One benefit of organized labor is the training received through the apprenticeship process. The migration to an open shop environment placed a great responsibility on the non-signatory firms to train. This need for training was the main driver in the formation of the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA). However, far too few open shop contractors take advantage of the tools available. Recruiting, training, and retaining qualified field technicians is on of the biggest challenge facing the fire sprinkler industry today.

The next 30 years may bring a whole new look as well as a return to the past. Moving from unskilled to skilled labor in the construction industry has long been a path for upward economic movement. Many of our parents and grandparents are proof of this. This movement continues today and is particularly evident with our immigrant population. The move from unskilled to skilled labor by first and second generation immigrants is especially strong in the Southwest and West regions and in the next 30 years will fill the entire country. The pipe fitter of the future will be second and third generation immigrants taking advantage of these good paying jobs which provide the foundation for solid middle class living. I am not making a judgment with this, just stating what I see. The return to the past could come as a resurgence of organized labor if the open shop portion of our industry does not do more to recruit, train, and retain qualified technicians. Business is dynamic and change always follows the needs.

Outsourcing

The trend to outsourcing has not escaped the fire sprinkler industry. Consider that 30 years ago virtually every fire sprinkler contractor had a fabrication shop. It was considered an essential component to be a successful company. Owners took great pride in the their shops and as welding became a prevalent part of the fabrication process much money was spent in designing good process lines, training welders, and investing in automatic machinery. However, many contractors came to view their shops as an “overhead eating machine” that must be constantly fed. It was and still is a challenge to keep a shop productive and cost effective. Outsourcing fabrication started in earnest in the early 1980’s and has experienced continuous growth. Today, the vast majority of contractors have little or no in-house fabrication capacity.

The outsourcing of sprinkler system layout (design) started a bit later but has accelerated in the last 20 years. Many small contractors in today’s environment outsource all design and even the largest contractors outsource to some degree. The reasons are varied but as with fabrication, there is a movement towards keeping fixed overhead costs to a minimum. The shortage of qualified fire sprinkler layout technicians, the increasing requirements for Professional Engineering oversight by some jurisdictions, and the ongoing investment in ever changing technology have also influenced many contractors to outsource the design and layout of sprinkler systems.

The next 30 years will see a continuation of this trend. In fact, we may see the day in the not too distant future when our industry is dominated by companies who outsource all operational functions. You may think not, but consider this–it was not long ago that General Contractors actually “built” projects using in-house labor and equipment. However, today, nearly all General Contractors simply manage the construction. Could it happen in fire protection? The future may bring a fire sprinkler industry made up of a relatively small number of managing firms outsourcing their fabrication, design, and installation labor to others specializing in each of these areas.

Maintenance and Service

30 years ago, sprinkler maintenance was not governed by a national standard. NFPA only published recommended practices (NFPA 13A) regarding sprinkler system maintenance. Most service and maintenance was reactive in nature and the majority of regular scheduled service performed was driven by the insurance industry to manage risk. The publication of NFPA 25 served notice that things were going to change, but the change was slower than expected. However, coupled with an ever increasing number of protected structures, the increased awareness of systems, and the greater focus on corporate governance regard risk we are seeing an accelerated growth of the inspection, testing, and maintenance market. The increasing number of jurisdictions enforcing the requirements of NFPA 25 and the adoption of laws calling for the certification and licensing of inspectors, maintenance and service is becoming a serious area of investment for many contractors. I do not see this trend slowing.

The next 30 years will bring a tremendous expansion in this market. The industry will see an increased number of companies dedicated to this service alone. Service and maintenance will be the catalyst for growth and the consolidation of our industry. In addition, I believe the ongoing reputation and success of our industry may be largely influenced by the care and maintenance of these systems. With the ever increasing number of sprinkler systems and as these systems age, failure rates will be watch closely. Without good maintenance, our industry runs the risk of a tainted public view the cost/ benefit of installing sprinkler systems. Big opportunity for our industry—big risk as well.

Consolidation

The consolidation of our industry is an interesting subject. 30 years ago, the fire sprinkler industry was dominated by a small number of large national and regional firms. Firms such Automatic, Viking, and Grinnell had the bandwidth to recruit, train, and develop professionals. Even today, most of the senior members of our industry can trace their roots to one of these large organizations. However, with the advent of broader sprinkler use and applications the number of sprinkler companies grew and with the open shop movement, the numbers soared. Today our industry is dominated by the “boutique” contractor.

However, we are seeing an active consolidation movement taking place. Our industry has been “hot” in the investment community for a decade. Investment firms are buying and consolidating companies to develop a national footprint. Large service companies such as Cintas have acquired a number of fire protection contractors to add to their stable of services. Much of this expansion is geared towards the service and maintenance opportunities but system installation also plays a part. Investors see the huge residential market exploding with the seemingly inevitable adoption of universal sprinkler requirements by the codes.

The next 30 years will see the emergence of a growing number of mega-companies whose focus will be service and maintenance. With the challenges of recruiting, training, and retaining, it may take large mega-companies with the capacity of making the required investment to supply our industry with the need numbers of skilled technicians. There will always be a place for the well run boutique, but I have no doubt that our industry will see a large “reconsolidation” on a national level.

There are lots of evolving and unforeseen circumstances that make any prediction fraught with uncertainty and these predictions are simply my “take on things”, but I believe one thing is certain. Our industry will continue to grow because we deliver a product that “means something.” I am proud to deliver products and services that contribute in meaningful ways to our way of life. It has been a great and exciting run for the past 30 years and the future will bring no less.

My Fire Sprinkler Story

May 27th, 2008

I am a native of Las Vegas, Nevada and have spent all but the first 3 years of my working career in the fire protection industry. I must admit to you that I did not find fire sprinklers, but rather they found me.

At the time I entered the field, most sprinkler professionals were either born into the industry or referred to it by a friend or acquaintance. The latter is my story.

I had spent my first two and a half years after college in the credit insurance industry working for a large managing general agency. I found it unfulfilling and dull.

I began looking for a career that provided:

  • – a worthwhile product or service
  • – created an opportunity to develop a technical skill
  • – offered an unlimited potential for leadership.

A lay leader in my church told me that the company he worked for was recruiting sprinkler system design trainees for their formal training program. I really had no idea what a fire sprinkler was, but I applied, interviewed, and was eventually accepted.

I found my home. I was fascinated with these small inexpensive devices and the protection they provided and I took every opportunity to increase my knowledge and skill.

After completing my training I was relocated to San Diego, California and my career path was set. I moved through a series of responsible positions including that of general manager for a mid-sized fire protection contracting firm.

A fellow fire sprinkler professional, Bill Holden, and I formed a company called Fire Design and commenced business in June of 1990. We provided fire sprinkler system working drawings for contractors and conceptual plans for owners and architects.

This was a great learning opportunity and eventually led to the defining moment of my career—working with one of the most passionate and innovative fire protection professionals in the industry, Bill Tomes.

In 1991, Bill Holden and I joined with Bill Tomes, Chuck Van Rickley, and Jim Tomes of Tomes Van Rickley and Associates in forming Fire Design Group, Inc. We eventually changed our name to TVA Fire Life Safety, Inc. With the exception of Chuck Van Rickley, who left the firm in early 1996, we are still partners today.

Over the years, we transformed our small consulting firm into an international fire protection provider with annual revenue for 2007 in excess of 80 million dollars (US). Telgian Corporation offers a breadth of services utilizing a model for customer advocacy that is unmatched.

Along the way, I have been active in local and national industry promotion and training. A look at my resume will provide a glimpse of my involvement and passion for this great industry that is only now beginning to realize its potential.

With the increasing emphasis on life safety (residential fire sprinklers), the economic realities of sound risk management (Sarbanes-Oxley), and the global exporting of our technology, the fire protection industry is on the verge of an expansion that will dwarf all previous growth.

My personal mission is to help facilitate this growth. Sound cost effective life safety and risk management are worthy objectives and I am proud to be associated with an industry that does make a difference in people’s lives.

The vision of Telgian is to transform the business of fire and life safety on a global basis and I plan to assist by continuing to promote our industry, to look for innovative solutions, and to professionalize our industry through training and education.

Welcome from Russ Leavitt

May 27th, 2008

Hello, my name is Russ Leavitt and I would like to welcome you to my web site.

The fire protection industry is on the verge of an expansion that will dwarf all previous growth.

Consider:

  • – the increasing emphasis on life safety (residential fire sprinklers)
  • – the economic realities of sound risk management (Sarbanes-Oxley)
  • – the global exporting of fire protection technology

My personal mission is to help facilitate this growth.

Sound, cost effective, life safety and risk management are worthy objectives and I am proud to be associated with an industry that does make a difference in people’s lives.

This web site is my personal forum to share my thoughts, ideas, and assistance with anyone who is looking for a challenging career, help in solving life safety problems, or simply looking for answers to questions.

I look forward to hearing your ideas and thoughts about the wonderful opportunities that await us in making our world a safer place for all.

If you have a questions or would like to comment on my writing, you can leave a comment in the section at the bottom of the page.  This way other visitors will also benefit.

If you need to contact me privately please use the contact form.

To read my story about how I found the fire protection industry (or rather how it found me) see – My Fire Sprinkler Story