Equipment to Facilitate the Fire Inspector’s Job

BY ED RUCKRIEGEL

Firefighters, paramedics, and emergency medical technicians probably use more tools than other professionals. A firefighter’s day often begins with making sure that the tools he may use during the shift are in top working order. Fire inspectors also require a variety of tools to perform their daily tasks. This article presents some of these tools and equipment that help inspection personnel work more efficiently and their costs. Some of these implements are essential; others are nice to have.

Obviously, the foundation of a fire inspector’s job, just like a firefighter’s job, is built on knowledge, skills, and experience. No number of tools will make you competent if you do not have the necessary training and experience. Knowledge, skills, and experience are critical tools of the job. This article, however, focuses on the devices an inspection staff uses.

INSPECTION TOOLS AT A GLANCE 

Codes and Standards

A comprehensive library of codes, standards, handbooks, compendiums, and ordinances is essential to the fire inspection profession. Code enforcement describes the need to have a complete arsenal of reference materials. One fire service cartoon shows a rookie fire inspector walking into the office and the fire marshal handing him a pile of books stacked over his head. The caption reads: “Welcome to Fire Prevention.” Codes are for the fire inspector what water is for firefighters.

Every fire prevention office must have a copy of the adopted codes and standards. Whether the municipality adopts the International Code Council’s (ICC) suite of codes or the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) code system, the inspector must have access to the books or an electronic format of those codes.

The budget impact of an up-to-date and comprehensive set of codes and standards can be considerable. For a staff of 10 inspectors, a department should budget a minimum of $2,500 annually. The department can purchase the ICC and NFPA codes in alternating years. This appropriation will support the purchase of a fire prevention code for each station and inspector. In addition, the budget should allow for the purchase of specific NFPA or ICC codes for the plan-review staff. Needless to say, it is not necessary for each inspector to have a copy of all codes. It is fiscally responsible for the inspection staff to share the less-referenced standards.

Inspection Tracking Software

The objectives of a fire inspection are to note violations (or their absence), informing the owner of the inspection findings, and making the establishment safer. Although using pen and paper has been a time-tested and successful form of tracking inspections, a computer program makes inspection tracking and management much more efficient. Most departments have acquired some form of software to manage inspections and other department functions. A department must have a good program for entering and reporting inspection activities. Select inspection-management software carefully.

Programs for managing fire inspection activities vary considerably in cost. Functionality, the number of users, and the scope of applications drive the cost. More applications, users, and intuitive functions mean more funds to be expended in the budget. At a minimum, a department should budget at least $35,000 for the purchase of basic inspection software. As much as $500,000 may be needed for a large department with inspection, plan-review, and permit-management functions.

Tape Measure

Every inspector needs a tape measure. Many aspects of the code are based on distances and dimensions. Among them are aisle widths, sprinkler clearances, and visual warning appliance spacing or coverage. A small pocket-sized tape measure is best. This must-have tool costs less than $10.

Digital Camera

Photographs are evidence of violations. Pictures refresh the memory and are great training tools. An electronic file of photos showing violations is invaluable in community education efforts and public information. All inspectors need a pocket-sized digital camera for photographing what they see in the field. A digital camera and large-capacity memory card should cost less than $100.

Architectural and Engineering Scales

If the department performs and reviews fire protection systems, site plans, or architectural reviews of plans, then each plan reviewer needs architectural and engineering scales. Checking fire hydrant coverage and spacing necessitates an engineering scale. Staff must have an architectural scale on their desks if they are responsible for checking fire sprinkler plans or the length of the common path of travel. These essential plan-review tools will cost less than $25 per plan reviewer.

Smartphone

In the digital age, immediate access to services is expected and required if an organization wants to provide and maintain a high level of customer service. Each inspector needs a cell phone to connect with property owners and managers. The calendar and e-mail aspects of a smartphone are essential tools. This device ensures good customer service and efficient communications with staff. With the buying power of a municipality, do not expect to pay much more than $50 for the phone. Monthly service fees vary, but they should not exceed $60 per inspector. Most smartphones include a digital camera, eliminating the need to purchase a separate stand-alone digital camera.

Portable Computer

Mobile or field-entry devices may be viewed as a luxury or be available only to municipalities with a well-developed IT department and substantial infrastructure. Handheld computers or ruggedized laptops are essential. Field data entry is necessary to maximize staff efficiency and improve customer relations and services.

Portable or handheld computers allow staff to check inspection histories, update preplans, maintain contact information, enter the results of inspections, print violation notices, e-mail copies of inspection results, and perform many other functions while on site. Portable devices improve accuracy of inspection results and can track inspection time and mileage and facilitate improved routing of inspections. Opportunities for improved efficiency are almost unlimited when departments use technology such as portable data-entry devices. The cost of the hardware for field data entry is approximately $3,500 per inspector—costly, but well worth the expenditure.

Decibel Meter

If the fire prevention staff is involved in acceptance tests for fire alarm systems, a decibel meter is a good tool to have in the toolbox. Verification of the alarm sound level is necessary to perform a comprehensive fire alarm system acceptance test.

Sound level meters vary in price; for inspection work, you can purchase an inexpensive meter for about $50. If contractors question the quality or credibility of department meters, the contractor should provide a meter of its choosing. Fire department meters should be viewed only as a verification device.

Range Finder

This popular hunting gadget can also serve as a tool for fire inspectors. A range finder can be used to check fire hydrant spacing and coverage and to verify the fallout zone or perimeter for aerial fireworks displays. This is a nice, but not vital, tool to have. A range finder can be purchased for less than $200.

Voltage Detector/Tester

The inexpensive and lightweight voltage detector/tester can quickly tell the inspector if an extension cord is energized or if outlets have power. Often, inspectors are told an extension cord is not in use or an appliance is not plugged in.

With a voltage detection device, inspectors do not have to hunt down the ends of the cord; they can simply hold the tester next to the cord, appliance, or fixture to determine if it is energized. This device is a must-have for fire inspectors. At less than $12, any department should be able to purchase one for each inspector.

Digital Level

Verification of pipe sloping toward the riser or low point drains in a dry fire sprinkler system is an important check of a fire sprinkler fitter’s work. A quick check to make sure branch lines drain to low points could prevent property losses and business interruption caused by frozen sprinkler pipes.

Another use for a level is to check the pitch of underground fuel lines to ensure the line drains to the tank. Codes intended for environmental protection may require fuel product lines to slope to the tank. Simple torpedo levels work fine and are very inexpensive. The digital device costs about $50.

Fish Scale

Inspectors may question the opening force of exit doors. With a fish scale, the inspector can loop a rope around the doorknob and hook the fish scale to the rope. By pulling the fish scale to open the door, you can read the pounds required to open the door, verifying the pressure does not exceed 30 pounds to set the door in motion and 15 pounds to swing the door to a fully open position as required by the International Building Code. The scale costs no more than $20.

Flashlight

A high-intensity, tactical flashlight is vital and indispensable. A rechargeable light with vehicle and 110-volt charger is preferable. Do not consider a fire scene lantern for inspection work; inspections require a flashlight with a high-intensity beam that allows the inspector to see objects 15 to 20 feet away.

The type of flashlight suggested can be purchased at police, fire, military, or other specialty retailers. A quality flashlight will cost $125. Look for a tactical flashlight.

Foot Candle Meter

This tool is for a department with plenty of expendable funds. Occasionally, staff may question the illumination level at an exit sign or the lighting provided by an emergency system. Personnel can ensure compliance with a foot candle meter. A calibrated, rugged, and lightweight foot candle meter costs $150.

Pitot Tube and Liquid-Filled Gauges

Any inspector who has ever witnessed a fire pump test, pressure-reducing valve test, or any of the many required acceptance tests for flowing water has seen gauges fluctuate by as many as 15 pounds. Glycerin-filled gauges temper the fluctuations to provide a precise reading. Three gauges are necessary to read suction, discharge, and flow. The pitot tube is necessary for determining the flow (gallons per minute).

To boost the inspector’s confidence in the accuracy of the test and to make it easier to read the pressure, the inspector can ask the contractor to temporarily install the department-owned and -maintained gauges in lieu of the less expensive gauges used in the industry.

Glycerin gauges are available at $20 each. The expense of periodic calibration should be considered before purchasing quality gauges. The pitot is relatively inexpensive; it can be purchased for as little as $150.

Electronic Blueprints

Electronic blueprints improve inspection effectiveness and efficiency. Whether scanned by department personnel or submitted by design professionals or contractors, the files have almost limitless uses in the fire department. Fire inspections and operations benefit through the use of electronic design drawings.

Electronic files are easy to copy to laptops and field data entry devices. The drawings assist inspectors in making decisions relative to approvals and ensuring the completed project complies with the approved documents. When working in existing buildings, inspectors may use the files to ensure the use and operations of the facility are conducted in accordance with the original approvals.

Specifically, electronic blueprints of complex design approaches for high-piled storage assist staff in new and existing storage occupancies. Design and approval considerations such as storage height, aisle width, commodity classification, and all of the other storage variables are at inspectors’ fingertips. Having fire alarm, fire sprinkler, and site plans available to staff enables inspectors to make timely and informed decisions.

Blueprint files also serve as a resource for fire operations. Design drawings can be the foundation of preplans. The files can be copied to computers used by special teams like rapid intervention, hazmat, and technical rescue. Command vehicles and mobile command posts can store the electronic files for-large scale or complex operations. Operations will find this tool beneficial for many aspects of fire and emergency responses.

Fire departments should consider this inexpensive resource for inspections and operations.

Implementation of electronic blueprints for inspections should not require funding. With an existing information technology infrastructure and handheld computers or laptops, staff should be able to simply load files on the field device.

Magnehelic Differential Pressure Gauge

Verification of the required pressure difference for smoke control across stairwell doors requires a magnehelic gauge. This simple device is important when performing comprehensive life safety system acceptance tests in high-rise buildings. A gauge for staff use should cost less than $75. Purchase a gauge designed to measure differences between 0.0 and 0.5 inches of water column.

PURCHASING INSPECTION TOOLS

Acquiring these tools and equipment can be overwhelming for some departments. Purchasing all of the essential and supplemental tools, including the computer, will require a budget of $3,822 for each inspector. Many of the tools can be shared because they may not be used frequently. The common gadgets will cost $755. Infrastructure needs, such as the software and a library of codes, will cost at least $37,250. Purchasing the equipment over time is a practical approach to providing your staff with a variety of tools for the job.

Whether fighting fires, caring for the sick and injured, managing specialized incidents, or performing inspections, all fire service jobs require specialized tools and equipment. Inspector tools, although not as expensive or as challenging to use, are essential to the efficiency, proficiency, and accuracy of your fire prevention bureau.

ED RUCKRIEGEL has been fire marshal for the Madison (WI) Fire Department since 1994. He became a fire protection engineer for the city in 1990. A 30-year veteran of the fire service, he began his career as a volunteer firefighter. Ruckriegel has a bachelor’s degree in fire and safety engineering technology from Eastern Kentucky University.

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