By Tim Thompson
As with the fire service in general, numerous responsibilities have been added to the role of the fire marshal. There are some constants that should remain the focus and inspections should be at the top of that list. Fire inspections are not exciting like many of the things that we get to do in the fire service, but there are few things that a fire department can do that will benefit the department and the community more than a fire inspection can.
The first and most obvious benefit of a fire inspection is that it provides an opportunity to educate your citizens on fire safety. One thing I have learned over the years is that most people want to do the right thing, but sometimes they don’t know what the right thing is. It is easy for us to forget that the average citizen doesn’t live in our world and they may not understand or think about the importance of clearance from a sprinkler head, egress paths, or not storing items under a stairwell. It is our job to teach them, not to punish them. Once people understand the reasoning behind the codes, most of the time they will comply. Business owners want to make sure that their employees and customers are safe and that their investment is protected from fire risk.
The second benefit of fire inspections is that they get the fire department into the buildings in your community. Our job is to protect lives and property, and some of the simplest violations can have the biggest impact for your businesses. Overloaded outlets that can start a fire and missing ceiling tiles and holes in walls that can allow for fire spread are just a couple of examples. Checking to make sure life safety equipment is functioning will keep the occupants safe in the event of an emergency. Finding that emergency exit signage is working properly, sprinkler systems have been regularly tested, and that fire drills are being done will also help keep your citizens safe. Unless you have a robust preplan program in your department, the fire marshal may be the only eyes your fire department has to the structures in your community. Not only are inspections able to keep the citizens safe and their businesses open, they can create an opportunity for the firefighters to learn about the building construction or special hazards in their district if information gets relayed back to them through the fire marshal. This works the opposite way as well; as your firefighters start understanding what to look for in businesses, they can relay the information to your fire marshal, and they can address them if there are any violations. It is crucial, however, that you don’t have your firefighters bringing issues up to the business owner unless it is of an extreme life safety issue. It is best to have one communicator to the businesses to maintain relationships and consistency.
Finally, inspections allow the fire department to come to the businesses on a good day, not on their worst day. Being in the public allows you to represent your department with professionalism, knowledge, and sincerity in wanting to make sure that your community is safe. The fire service is not unlike any other emergency service in the fact that we need good public relations. When the citizens and business owners know what you do and that you have their best interest in mind, they will come to bat for you when you need their support for staffing, equipment, and pay.
Fire inspections are not the most glamorous task that fire departments must undertake, but they are crucial to the well-being and safety of the community we swore an oath to serve. When buildings in our community burn, the event may provide a momentary rush of adrenaline for us as we respond, pull a line, extinguish, and overhaul; after we mop up and leave, however, that fire affects the families and business owners for months if not for the rest of their lives. Businesses closed from fires means jobs are lost, revenues and tax base are eroded, and lives are destroyed. We are not going to put ourselves out of work by doing fire inspections, but we will make are communities safer, more productive, and more prosperous. For the departments who do not have the luxury of a designated position for inspections, I urge you to use your companies to make this a priority, especially in your high-risk areas like hotels, apartments, and hotels. Not every fire department is fortunate enough to have a fire marshal, let alone a fire inspector, but if you do, I hope this gives you a new outlook on how important this work is for your community.
Tim Thompson is a 16 year veteran of the fire service. He is the assistant chief of prevention and fire marshal for the Georgetown (KY) Fire Department.