So You Want To Be a Fire Inspector?

by David Wilson

A fire inspector’s job can be quite challenging, and affects many people’s lives. The fire inspector can make homes safer, help places of employment to prevent injuries and to decrease the downtime caused by fires. Fire inspections make public places more enjoyable in that people can relax and not be overly concerned about getting out in an emergency. Fire inspectors also teach children and adults how to prevent burns and property damage from fire. They increase safety in schools and day care centers, and improve quality-of-life issues for apartment dwellers.

Job Requirements

You can enter the Fire Prevention Bureau (FPB) through job postings, transfers, civil service testing, and other methods. The FPB should not be viewed as a dumping ground for the lame and injured. Inspectors are busy and out in the field; they climb stairs, fire escapes, and roof ladders; and walk several miles a day.

The fire inspector must be professional, well-educated and trained, and empathetic. Professional credentials through education, experience, testing, and continuing education are essential. Many jurisdictions require licensing for an enforcement position, with a concentration on model codes such as the International Building Code (IBC), Building Officials and Code Administrators International (BOCA), National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and local regulations.

Explaining the fire codes to the public is essential to gain compliance, the inspector’s ultimate goal. Testifying in court and dealing with complaints to your supervisors takes you off the street and sometimes portrays a combative image to the public. The codes can be quite complex to interpret; they generally are reactions to injuries and deaths–rarely proactive. You must explain this. The public may be upset by the expenses and delays and may assume they are merely hurdles devised by some bureaucrat; you may have to overcome this attitude, but it will be time well spent when code compliance is obtained without appeals and bad feelings.

Challenges

Sometimes, there may be some misunderstandings among fire inspectors and other fire department members. The animosity of some firefighters and labor unions who fear that your job puts them out of business is real. You can overcome such opposition by attending firefighting courses, participating in training, taking platoons out on inspections, asking for their input on response needs, and explaining all the things you do to make their job safer. They include the following: clearing out accumulated debris, reducing fire loads, facilitating searches, instituting ventilations points and smoke-control options, posting safety placards for truss construction and hazmats, positioning alarm panels for accessibility and fire department key boxes and contact information for after-hours access.

Inspectors also size and wire elevators for EMS and fire responses and ensure the following: that egress points are well marked, false alarms are minimized, handrails are in place, self-closing fire doors will operate, and that double-key locks and other mantraps are eliminated. The fire inspector is also responsible to see that sprinkler systems function as designed and that there is adequate vehicle access. In short, when everyone is coming out of the building, you are making it safer for responders going in.

Reviewing building safety features with first responders in a classroom or in a field setting is essential to gain their support and cooperation. You may have to remind them that more than 100 firefighters are killed and thousands injured every year, often by the building and the contents. The data you collect on building construction, owners, occupancies, and locations will be entered into data systems, further aiding incident commanders to establish operational control.

Fire investigation is an important function of fire protection bureaus. What better way to prevent fires than to put arsonists in jail or to provide Juvenile Fire Setter Intervention Programs? The investigation unit’s responsibilities vary by jurisdiction and the size or type of the event, and may include working with local, county, state, and federal agencies. Cause-and-origin investigations can lead to criminal prosecutions, civil litigation, changes in building codes, revised emergency response standard operating procedures, product recalls, new educational programs, and opportunities for community outreach.

Public Education

Public education is another aspect of fire prevention work. When a fire occurs in a neighborhood, people want to know what happened and if it was preventable. The media will want the full story of who, what, where, when, and why.

Write articles for local newspapers, Web sites, and homeowner associations. Distribute doorknob hangers containing fire safety tips after an incident. Welcome visitors into the firehouse, and have quality handouts available. Place and maintain literature racks in public buildings. Educate preschoolers about hot and cold items. Speak to school children and adults about escape plans; smoke detectors; kitchen safety; “stop, drop and roll;” and candle safety. Make videos or give interviews to local cable stations. Open houses, street fairs, and service organizations all offer venues for getting the fire safety message out year-round, not just during Fire Prevention Week. Local businesses and community leaders are thrilled to help sponsor your events. Sharing your experiences in the field, either as an investigator, a first responder, an inspector, or an officer, will reinforce your educational programs. Training in public education is available through fire academies nationwide. Contact your local schools about mentors within the district. The shortage of common sense and overabundance of misinformation can be overcome with a consistent and focused public education program.

The human and property losses from fire within the United States are appalling. We lose more than 4,000 citizens every year, and tens of thousands more are injured. If a disease was causing these losses, we would be fund-raising, demonstrating, researching, and expressing outrage that something needs to be done. Fire and smoke are devastating our population. The solution is available now–a strong, energetic fire prevention bureau. Will you help?

David A. Wilson has spent 23 years as a firefighter and fire inspector and 34 years in EMS and rescue with the American Red Cross. He is a fire instructor level 1, a fire sub-code/multiple dwelling official HHS, a DCJ arson investigator, a deputy coordinator OEM, and a hazmat technician.



Subjects: Fire protection and prevention, fire inspectors and inspections, code enforcement, public education, fire investigations, arson investigations

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