INSPECTOR ACCOUNTABILITY: MANAGING INSPECTIONS IN AN EXPANDING COMMUNITY

BY DON SMITH

As public servants, we must all be aware of our responsibilities to the community to ensure that tax dollars are wisely spent. Across the nation, every community with fire inspectors has adopted a local fire ordinance, or fire code, to maintain certain standards within the community. In our community, the Austin (TX) Fire Department (AFD) Fire Prevention Division has been assigned to make sure these ordinances/codes are enforced. It is part of the fire marshal’s job to see that this function is effectively and efficiently carried out.

Managing inspections in a fixed community (a community with established boundaries and no room to grow laterally) has its challenges. Maintenance inspections and flexibility in scheduling, combined with the time-sensitive inspection needs of city government (or other various mandated requests), create many scheduling demands. However, move to the city that is growing, annexing, and developing on a daily basis, and the challenges of “workload to work-product vs. available hours equality” multiply. Scheduling varying time-sensitive tasks requires a flexible workforce with the ability to react to different demands while maintaining efficiency.

Inspector accountability goes beyond ensuring your fire code inspectors are at work on time. It means more than proper training on fire code requirements. It extends past inspection techniques and procedures for conducting various inspections or systems acceptance testing. The taxpayer dollar and the “worth” of the Prevention Division/Bureau must be carefully measured and accounted for. Are we doing any good? Are we doing it in the most cost-efficient manner? Are we spending the tax dollar wisely? Fire Prevention and the inspectors therein are responsible to their community. They must show results.

Many books have been written on accountability, management, and leadership. Many leadership styles, management techniques, and methods of maintaining accountability have been discussed. One item I believe to be extremely important is the essential ability to prove your people’s worth. Inspector accountability revolves around proving value. When the fire marshal can show others-especially the subordinates themselves-how vital they are, he will gain respect and trust. Inspectors are an essential element in fighting fire. With that respect and trust, the division gains an employee willing to prove him right.

FUNCTIONS OF A FIRE MARSHAL

To prove worth and maintain accountability, the fire marshal must do the following:

Know the job. In the movie Caddyshack, Chevy Chase’s character was teaching a young caddy how to improve his golf game. The catch phrase throughout the movie was, “Be the ball.” This is how I envision a fire marshal: Know the job. Know what it means to perform a trip test on a kitchen hood extinguishing system. Know all of the procedures your inspector will go through when conducting an alarm system acceptance test and a Certificate of Occupancy inspection of a multifamily residential structure. Intimately know what the division does.

Captain D. Michael Abrashoff, former commander in the U.S. Navy, wrote the management book It’s Your Ship. He writes about his days commanding the USS Benfold (a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer). He states: “The key to being a successful skipper is to see the ship through the eyes of the crew. Only then can you find out what’s really wrong and, in so doing, help the sailors empower themselves to fix it.”

Experience is the best way to know the job. To see the division through the inspector’s eyes, it is best to have been an inspector. In the AFD, although it is not policy within our department, a career ladder within the division is the easiest and most effective way to “be the ball.” Without this career path within Prevention, the new fire marshal and each succeeding fire marshal (and without a career path, there will be many fire marshals rotating through this position of authority) will have an extended learning curve slowing forward movement for the division. Although there are benefits from rotating suppression personnel through an Emergency Prevention Division, continuity within the fire marshal’s office provides the catalyst for needed growth and continued improvement, two ingredients necessary for any business.


Maintain a risk analysis (see Table 1). One of the performance requirements of any city’s fire department is to reduce the loss of life and property damage caused by fire (everyone understands that, in today’s world, there are many roles within a fire department). To prove worth in the overall performance of the organization, a risk analysis must be maintained and reviewed as years pass.

First, develop a risk index list by property type. Two variables are primary in calculating risk: Frequency and Consequence. A formula to represent this calculation of risk would read as follows:

Risk = Frequency (F) Times (×)
Consequence (C), or R = F × C

With this in mind, the AFD developed the following formula of risk:

Risks = Number of Fires
(% Casualties + % Dollar Loss)

In this formula, Total Fires represents Frequency, and the elements of Casualties and Dollar Loss represent the Consequences. For each property type (fixed property use), the risk is calculated on an annual basis. The total number of fires in any property type is multiplied by the number of casualties in that property type (as a percent of the overall fire casualties in all property types), plus the total dollar loss within that property type as a percent of total fire-related dollar loss in all properties.

In identifying a risk value for each property type, AFD will follow that value over time to evaluate effectiveness. Specific campaigns may target specific occupancies or target specific areas of the city to measure the effectiveness of the campaign. The formula we developed follows:

Risks = F(Casualties) +
F(Dollar Loss in Millions)
Population (Thousands)

We simply calculate the specific number of casualties and the specific amount of dollar loss (adjusted for inflation). We further enhance the formula by normalizing the data with a population divisor. The City of Austin has experienced incredible economic and population growth during the past 10 years. Most important is the increase in high-rise residential and high-rise mixed-use (residential and commercial). By normalizing the data with a population divisor and targeting a particular property class, we account for the increase in population over time for specific occupancies.


Measure efficiency. There is a fine balance between hours available to perform inspections, hours actually required to perform needed inspections, and assigning the appropriate number of inspections to achieve as many competent and effective inspections as possible (see Table 2).

Types of Inspections

In a rapidly expanding community, the most prevalent type of inspection is the Technical Inspection. This category includes sprinkler system visuals, hydrostatic tests, alarm system acceptance testing, and certificate-of-occupancy inspections, for example. These inspections are prescheduled by the customer (contractor, alarm technician, and so on) and must be performed on the day and time assigned. Nontechnical inspections, or maintenance inspections, as routine and procedural as they may seem, are very important. Maintenance inspections, among other things, ensure the fire protection systems are operational. The reassurance of the proper operation of a system installed, per code requirement, is an important aspect of a Prevention Division. Maintenance inspections remain a high priority no matter how much growth your community is experiencing. The Technical Inspection is a mandated (required per code, city ordinance, or national standard) inspection that is usually scheduled by the fire protection contractor and requires coordination with several entities. It has to be performed within a specific time parameter. In the AFD, the Maintenance Inspection can be put off, rescheduled, or even cancelled until you have the time to get around to it. In some parts of the country, however, maintenance inspections are mandated within specified times (annually, for example).

Available Hours

In establishing an effective and efficient workforce, you first must determine the number of hours inspectors are available to perform productive inspections. We call that “Available Hours.” Available hours are calculated by taking the number of personnel work hours on any given day and subtracting the hours required for the important stuff. In determining the available hours, the AFD first had to review priorities. Who is our customer? What is important to us?

Historically, our customer has changed through the years, depending on the working climate, the building boom, and recession in the economy. Our customers have traditionally been the general contractors, the alarm technician, and the sprinkler contractor in a moderate to robust economy. During the lean years, our customers would change and become the recipients of maintenance inspections, the apartment complexes, the hazardous-materials occupancies, occupancies requiring fire protection systems, or the established high-risk occupancies. We would then stand back and look at a bigger picture and decide our customers were the citizens of Austin, the population in general, the taxpayers. All of these answers are correct, but with this realization, we could see that we had too many bosses-too many customers demanding our time-and all were external to the AFD. It became apparent to us, with a review of our priorities, that the ultimate customer for the Prevention inspector is the suppression firefighter. We serve at the whim and desires of the firefighting companies. We use the fire code, the number-one most important tool a fire department possesses, in reducing damage and loss of life, in helping the firefighters on the fire engines perform their jobs.

Internalizing our primary customer brought about a new perception of the work done in the Prevention office.

First, we are all still firefighters. We still respond to emergencies. Fighting fire is actually the last act of a firefighter. Every officer in the AFD is a certified inspector. Every operations in-service company performs inspections. Prevention’s priority became that of supporting the suppression officer. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, an inspector is available to assist the operations company. An on-call inspector program was developed to provide help, wherever needed, whenever required (during emergency response or normal inspections). Included in the concept that we are all still firefighters came the realization that medical training, continuing education hours, in-service company drills, and the laying of line and applying water as required of any operations firefighter are still very important. These obligations are imperative, especially to those staff employees making a career in staff and planning on never returning to the suppression ranks. These responsibilities take time and must ultimately reduce “Available Hours.”

Second, priorities within Prevention must be considered. Code changes or revisions to national standards require internal training, which includes professional development. Vehicles require maintenance. Paperwork and administrative duties involve desk time. Inspector specialties need attention and documentation. Meetings with internal and external customers occur. All require time.

Each inspector knows at the beginning of every day the number of hours he will be assigned to perform inspections, how much time he is given for phone calls, or if he has training requirements with an operations company. Now that we have a number of hours we are available to perform inspections, we assign them.

Assigned Hours

Inspection events are scheduled with “cover sheet” questionnaires. A cover sheet will completely explain the event and calculate the time required to accomplish the task outlined. A questionnaire cover sheet accompanies every type of inspection event, be it a short safety meeting or an extensive systems sequence test of a high-rise building requiring two inspectors for four hours. Cover sheets actually empower the inspectors in determining their day. The cover sheet contains all the basic information (address, contact number, and so on) about the event and all other pertinent information. Depending on the specific answers on the questionnaire (such as the number of devices and the configuration of the building), along with other justifying factors, we can determine an inspection time-i.e., number of smoke detectors or number of dampers, for example, multiplied by the number of minutes for each. (A visual of a 1,000-head sprinkler system in a warehouse will take considerably less time than a 1,000-head sprinkler in an office complex.) Inaccurate calculated times are policed by the inspectors during daily inspection assignments.

“Work-In” Inspections

During the assigning of inspections, we look for opportunities to consolidate times. An example would be squeezing in the small 1,000-square-foot tenant finish-out assigned 30 minutes (mainly for drive time) with the two-hour sprinkler system hydrostatic test/visual [requirements per National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)] across the street or the three inspection events that happen to fall three blocks from each other, allowing for the elimination of drive time. We also “work in” inspections with a stack of unscheduled inspections, normally maintenance types, held in reserve for the last-minute cancellations or those instances where the contractor does not show up at the inspection site. We call this report the “Blood from a Turnip.”

Some inspections are scheduled for overtime solely because Prevention is full and could not schedule the events on regular time. This consolidation of inspection times also provides the opportunity to pick up these inspections, which are scheduled as after-hours events, into the normal day.

The assignment of a daily support inspector in the office covers Prevention for that urgent situation. The fire that requires an inspector with technical advice, the city manager in search of a code-related answer, and the fire chief needing representation at a building development meeting are all routine matters for a daily inspector assigned office duties. There is always enough office work during those much-desired quiet times to keep anyone assigned to the desk busy.

One last accountability item used on the Inspector Efficiency Form is the Personal Accountability Report (PAR). The inspectors use the PAR to account for their time at the end of the day. Inspectors must report to their captain as they finish their assignments and, if necessary, they are assigned additional work. It is also used for accountability when the inspector has completed all assigned duties 30 minutes before quitting time. The captain now takes the responsibility for that time. It is much more cost effective to send someone to wash their city-issued vehicle, write fire lane tickets, or even send them home while retaining the time responsibility at the supervisory level.

Encourage customer relations. We now know that the number-one customer is the suppression firefighter, but any discussion of accountability must also consider the external customer. The Prevention Division is a business, and every customer is important. Not only does the Prevention Bureau respond with enthusiasm to the requests of the operations companies and provide training and assistance whenever needed, it must also keep the fire protection contractors, the local businesses, and the citizens of the community happy. To help accomplish this, have biannual meetings with contractors to discuss business practices. We acquire input from the external customers, measure external satisfaction with customer surveys, and then respond to their concerns with genuine interest. We take the opportunity presented by a disaster to communicate our concerns and interests to specific businesses. The recent Rhode Island nightclub fire was the perfect opportunity to gather all nightclub owners together for a discussion on required emergency exit planning. A fire at a college dorm called for meetings with the Greek student housing community. A local warehouse fire is the perfect time to call together the Building Owners and Management Association (BOMA) chapter in your city for a “round robin” on fire safety and the identification of hazards/code violations. Supply questionnaires, and conduct surveys during these meetings. You can gather valuable input on how well you are performing.

Avoid inspector burnout. Tenure is important for an effective and efficient workforce. The best way to keep the inspector who has the ability to return to the world of shifts is to provide productive and rewarding work. Nothing will deflate an inspector more than the lack of appreciation and support for the work that he is doing. We provide additional incentives to the in-service inspectors by offering a “First On-Scene” award every quarter for the best operations inspection efforts. We also reward the Prevention Division inspectors with the praise they deserve. Most people in the fire service, and especially in the local community, rarely understand the contribution provided by the fire inspector. Rarely do you see those newspaper headlines stating, “Fire extinguished in apartment bedroom by one sprinkler head.” It just does not seem to make the news unless half the building is in flames when the firefighters arrive. This article gives me the opportunity to say that I am proud of the results that Inspections Sections across the nation achieve and of the work of AFD’s inspectors.

• • •

Ensure that your Fire Prevention Bureau is a credit to your department. Schedule inspections effectively and efficiently, and make sure your inspectors are performing their jobs. Do not dread the “undercover” news reporter searching for a story on government waste. NFPA 1021, Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications, states: “Ethical conduct requires honesty on the part of all public safety personnel …. The means of providing service, as well as the quality of the service provided, must be above question and must maximize … fairness and equity as well as efficiency and effectiveness.” Be the ball, know your risks, and measure your effectiveness. The International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Code of Ethics states: “Recognize that we serve in a position of public trust that imposes responsibility to use publicly owned resources effectively and judiciously.”

The Fire Marshal’s Office is the most important division within any department. The fire code is the single most effectual instrument in a fire department’s arsenal for assisting the operations/suppression firefighter with fighting fire. By concentrating on these items, the fire marshal unleashes the potential of the Inspections Section and maintains the accountability that is so important.

DON SMITH is a 23-year veteran of and a battalion chief in the Austin (TX) Fire Department. He has been assigned to the Emergency Prevention Division for the past 11 years. Following his promotion to battalion chief in 2002, he has served as the assistant fire marshal.

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