FIRE INSPECTOR TRAINING
BY GLENN P. CORBETT, P.E.
The ability of the fire inspector to effectively and uniformly enforce a fire code rests squarely on a strong foundation of training. An inspector must receive comprehensive basic training, periodic update and refresher training, and possibly specialized (such as sprinkler plan review) training to do the job. It seems that just yesterday all we had to worry about were exit signs and fire extinguishers (and a “handful” of other things) during fire inspections. Ah, life in the Fire Prevention Bureau used to be so simple….
But not so today. The model fire code groups have seen fit to create a lengthy set of complex regulations that cover a wide variety of fire hazards as well as health and environmental concerns. It`s a major effort just to keep up; training becomes critical.
To have the essential skills to perform his duties, an inspector must have basic training before he hits the road. Such skills should enable the inspector to handle the typical, everyday problems he will encounter.
How much training is necessary? Certainly, NFPA 1031, Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Inspector, requires competency in several “areas” of knowledge. State training requirements also establish minimum training criteria.
An inspector needs detailed knowledge of the requirements covered in the code he will enforce. This training usually covers the plethora of fire hazards, such as flammable liquids and paint spray booths, as well as fire protection systems, such as sprinkler and standpipe systems.
Just as important as the code requirements is training in how to conduct an inspection, which often is overlooked. Legal constraints, proper filing of paperwork, and how to handle inspecting the city councilman`s barbershop are examples of areas to cover with a new inspector.
Another important element that is not taught during basic training is the Fire Prevention Bureau`s policies. Most bureaus operate on an underlying set of policies that enable them to run smoothly. Like it or not, fire code text can be ambiguous in certain areas and technically out of date in others. Other code citations leave specific discretionary authority to the “Chief” (fire inspector). What are the bureau`s policies in each of these areas?
Other policies involve the relationship between the bureau and other city departments. Which department is responsible for checking the placement of smoke detectors in air-handling systems, for example?
Such policies must be discussed with the inspector during training. This allows everyone to “sing from the same song sheet.” Such policy training can avoid a situation in which Inspector A tells the client one thing while Inspector B tells him another. How many times have you heard that complaint?
While the value of a training course cannot be completely measured in terms of the time it takes, time is one yardstick you can use to evaluate it. I conducted a 250-hour basic inspector training course a few years ago and covered most areas I thought were essential. When I see other, much shorter programs, I wonder if they have covered the material in sufficient detail.
A final thought on basic training: How long ago did your veterans receive it? Was it in the days of “fire extinguishers and exit signs”? Would they benefit from attending portions of the basic course, if only to have them “singing the same song”?
TRAINERS AND TRAINING MATERIALS
Who should conduct the training? Certainly someone technically competent and experienced in this area. Experience is critical, especially when teaching code requirements that can be clarified with an example from real life. Experience is also important for answering questions that arise during class. Sometimes it still is necessary to bring in guest speakers to tap their expertise in certain areas.
What materials are available for the basic training course? Not many. There are books on general fire code enforcement and “canned” training aids for specific inspection areas but nothing detailed in one comprehensive source. In some cases there is no technical information at all other than the code itself!
During the training courses I have given, I have had to scour numerous sources to piece together a set of training notebooks, which included literature from industry in cases where no information was given in our “fire” texts. For example, try finding detailed technical fire inspector literature on the buffing operations found in tire-rebuilding facilities. How about an explanation of an ammonia diffusion system (the only reference was an NFPA handbook from the `60s)? A discussion of “dry-to-dry” dry cleaning equipment? The list goes on and on.
REFRESHER AND UPDATE TRAINING
Veteran field inspectors need periodic refresher training, especially in areas that they may not have come across for some time. Problems resulting from incorrect application of the code may arise in the field, making it apparent that refresher training is needed. In other cases, a specific event might necessitate a refresher course.
The fire code has expanded (and continues to expand) greatly. Update training is essential to keep abreast of all changes.
It is advantageous to have update training shortly before adopting a new fire code. Inspectors can familiarize themselves with the new code and compare it with the old code. They also can discuss new amendments to the code. Some model fire code organizations offer update courses. Be sure your personnel receive “jurisdiction-specific” information and policies that go along with the new code requirements. n
GLENN P. CORBETT, P.E., is a professor of fire science at John Jay College in New York City, a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a firefighter with the Waldwick (NJ) Fire Department. He previously held the position of administrator of engineering services with the San Antonio (TX) Fire Department. Corbett has a master of engineering degree in fire protection engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. He authored two chapters on fire prevention/protection in The Fire Chief`s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995). Corbett has been in the fire service since 1978.