By Patrick Nicholson
Annual fire and life safety inspections in businesses can be viewed by some as a punitive code enforcement process where an authority having jurisdiction forces compliance and indebts business owners. Poor communications and the failure of the inspecting agency to treat the inspection as an educational opportunity contribute to this controversy. Annual fire, life, and safety inspection programs in a community may be met with support or resistance from local business owners or managers. A successful inspection program is possible and must be educational, not punitive, have follow-up, and be supported by local elected officials with the authority having jurisdiction empowered with authority to enforce local code or laws concerning fire and life safety violations. Reasons for an annual inspection program are identification on hazards and preplanning to ensure the safety of first responders, improve safety of the public and occupants, and ensure proper operation of fire alarm and suppression systems. A properly implemented annual inspection program must be consistent, educational, and leave the business owner with a useful template that can be used to maintain ongoing compliance.
Annual fire and life safety inspections in non-residential occupancies involve annual visits to businesses to verify compliance with adopted model code by the authority having jurisdiction and to identify circumstances or conditions that threaten the life or safety of occupants and visitors. These annual inspections are performed by a jurisdiction’s fire marshal’s office, the local fire department, or an inspector from the local jurisdiction building department. The execution of annual inspections is carried out in different formats depending on the agency, one format being educational, in which the inspections are conducted with the business owner or management where violations are identified and clearly explained in reference to the model code. A second format is a fire department engine company-level inspection where results are provided to the owner or management post-inspection. A third format is punitive where violations are identified and subsequent fines or code enforcement may be carried out. “One of the worst things a local jurisdiction can do is to identify a fire hazard and leave it unabated.” (Crawford, 2011).
Pros of Annual Business Inspections
Pros or benefits of an annual inspection program are improved fire and life safety within businesses. This includes not only the public and employees, but first responders who respond to emergencies that occur in them. There are also potential cost-saving benefits associated with annual inspections. An example includes the Washington State Survey and Rating Bureau (WSRB, 2019), which audits county agencies throughout the state including building departments, community development, fire departments, and fire marshal departments. Audits include surveys of annual inspections, training, credentials, educations, and frequency of inspections.
Agencies are then scored. One component of their rating involves county fire departments. Annual inspections are included in their audits. The WSRB compiles the information and then scores the agency. Their results are shared with insurance companies, which revise annual premiums, resulting in cost savings to the constituents. Overall call response may also be a result of a successful inspection program because the building is safer than it would be without oversight.
Controversy with Annual Business Inspections
One controversy that may develop is the interpretation of the process as being punitive, no matter which format is executed. Business owners or management may be fearful of fines being imposed or code enforcement action if violations are identified. “As an example, many warehouse owners do not realize that if they increase their stock size, in-rack sprinkler systems might be required. Finding this out during a regular inspection can create a serious financial hardship, however justified it may be by the need for fire safety.” (Crawford, 2011.)
If inspection fees are associated with the annual fire inspections, this may create frustration with the owner or management.
Agencies who have an active annual fire inspection program in place may or may not provide follow-up to violations found or confirm that abatement has occurred. Failure to enforce the abatement of identified violations or follow-up could create a “paper tiger” reputation for the authority having jurisdiction, in which businesses neglect to correct issues secondary to no enforcement or follow-up.
There can be political influences on the fire marshal’s office or fire department concerning annual inspections that come from business owners, large industrial or manufacturing companies, developers, contractors, or government entities who do not feel that annual inspections are necessary. Success depends on the local support of an inspection program by elected officials or the governance of the municipality.
Annual fire and life safety inspections require commitment and dedication to be successful and should be conducted as an educational opportunity versus a punitive function with an overall mission to achieve voluntary compliance by the business owner. Benefits of a regular fire and life safety inspection program includes improved safety of first responders, employees and the general public, and potential cost savings in reduced insurance premiums. Business owners may feel that the experience is punitive, publicizes their violations, and indebts them to abate any discovered violations. The authority having jurisdiction maintaining the inspection program must carefully and collaboratively execute the program and properly train inspectors on how to perform the inspection and provide excellent customer service. The image of the jurisdiction is being evaluated and inspectors must be knowledgeable and respectful with the ability to follow-up on discovered violations. Business that resist or do not comply with annual inspections must be educated about the importance of abating violations, but the authority having jurisdiction must be prepared to follow through with code enforcement action if voluntary compliance cannot be achieved when all other efforts have been exhausted. First responder agencies appreciate risk reduction in their responses to businesses in their district and the public feels safer knowing an inspection has been performed. Sometimes, code enforcement action, including fines, is necessary to motivate a business to abate safety violations, but that relationship with the inspecting agency can be difficult to heal.
Businesses can maximize the educational component of the annual inspection by having key personnel present, such as the facilities manager or engineer. Having the appropriate people present will allow dialog between the inspector and staff so that findings can be directly communicated. Information learned from the inspection will assist businesses with the development of a risk assessment and safety plan. “The foundation of a solid fire prevention program is the fire risk assessment. This process begins with the identification of fire hazards in the facility. Once identified, risk (the likelihood and potential severity of injury) is assessed using a quantitative or qualitative approach.” Ross, P. E. (2011). The interactive inspection process will leave each business with a template which can be used throughout the year to maintain fire and life safety issues so that the next year’s inspection will be successful and the overall workplace will be made safer through awareness of existing risks.
Crawford, J. (2011). Fire Prevention Organization and Management. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Ross, P. E. (2011). Fire Prevention A Guide to Protecting Employees & Property. Professional Safety, 56(10), 62–69. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.libraryresources.columbiasouthern.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bsu&AN=67047858&site=eds-live&scope=site
Patrick Nicholson is fire marshal for Kittitas County, Washington. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration with a minor in fire investigation, and is an accelerant-detection K9 handler. He is a certified fire and explosion investigator and certified vehicle fire investigator with the National Association of Fire Investigators, and is a certified fire investigator through International Fire Service Accreditation Congress. He is also an International Code Council-certified fire inspector and fire plan reviewer.