What the fire marshal didn’t te ou, but you need to know—a practical guide t_____ re inspections.
Firefighters who enter the inspection division must deal with the public in new ways. Until this point, they have encountered the public mostly during emergency situations. The people they meet have called the fire department and welcome the firefighters who respond with open arms—not so for the fire inspector on his rounds.
Inspectors who arrive to examine a person’s place of business must remember: Their services haven’t been requested, and their decisions very possibly could affect the person’s livelihood. From the business owner’s point of view, everything involving inspection violations —from fire extinguishers to major electrical overhauls—costs money; many owners may wrongly believe that the risk of fire does not justify the cost of prevention. Fire inspectors would have no problems if they could walk into a store and say to the owner, “This week the fire department is running a special. All violations will be corrected and paid for by the city.”
Since they can’t, they face confrontations almost on a daily basis. Building owners, managers, and even tenants come up with dozens of excuses for violations, and fire inspectors must know how to counter those excuses without making the confrontation worse.
To help inspectors confront the crafty and streetwise owner or manager, here are some classic excuses and ploys and the most effective ways to deal with them.
“The manager isn’t in….”
This a grown-up playing hideand-seek.
Many hours will be wasted unless the fire inspector phones ahead of time and makes appointments. It will make the day run smoother. Making appointments will allow for more inspections, and therefore more production.
However, don’t try to clean up the town in a month. The fire inspector will never catch up with the work load, regardless of how many appointments are scheduled. It’s been said that, “You can’t jump on your white horse and solve all the problems out there.” This is true. But you can jump on your white horse for 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week. This is what counts.
“It’S been this way a long time….”
This may be a true statement which the tire inspector can’t dispute, due to the number of buildings and establishments in a particular area, or to the lack of enforcement by prior inspectors (who may have had blinders on).
It may be best for the inspector to acknowledge the fact and agree with this person. Tactfulness and knowledge of model codes, such as the National Life Safety Code, may enable the inspector to respond intelligently.
In some cases, noncompliance may be allowed to continue if it can be proven that violations don’t constitute a distinct hazard to life or property. This puts the burden of proof on the owner.
The similar excuse, “It’s grandfathered in…,” however, has no merit whatsoever. Grandfather wouldn’t have put up with this type of nonsense. People tend to overuse the word “grandfathering” when it comes time to improve or correct a situation that’s existed for a long time. Nowhere in the fire prevention codes is there a definition of grandfathering, and no legal document stating that a fire hazard is grandfathered will stop the fire. The fire will burn right through the document and the person holding it.
“But nobody caught this before….”
Here too, tact and truth must be used. An irate owner or manager only makes a situation worse and, sometimes, an inspection almost impossible. Liken this excuse to that of a speeding motorist who, when the state trooper pulls him over for doing 85 mph, tries to get out of the ticket by saying that he’s been speeding for the past 10 years without being stopped once. That’s irrelevant, of course. The fact that other inspectors haven’t caught fire code violations in the past doesn’t make it right.
“The fire inspector ivas just here….”
This confusion technique is a good delay tactic, especially in a large city where there are numerous inspectors and their inspection paths may cross. A check of the records will verify whether or not the claim is true. Often, the inspector to whom they refer turns out to be from an insurance company, health department, or other agency.
“I haven’t had a fire in 25 years….”
“You haven’t had a fatal heart attack, either,” is the response an inspector might like to give. But the best answer is to point out the facts. Fact: 80 percent of businesses that suffer a major fire never reopen. I act: 10 percent of those that do reopen fail within the first year after rebuilding. The remainder of cases are usually associated with a major chain that can take the blow and come back.
“There’s a fire station across the street….”
People tend to equate their safety with the proximity of a fire station to their property. That’s a certain fallacy, since many a fire station has burned to the ground. Explain to this person that closeness to the fire station should cut down on response time —provided the station is not out on another call —but that no firefighters are standing out front on firewatch for his particular property.
Illustrations by Arthur Arias
“I’d see the fire and could get out…”
The majority of the public has not experienced a fire of any magnitude. The first statement a person makes after a large fire is, “I can’t believe how fast the fire spread.” Eyewitnesses at such fires as the Coconut Grove Night Club, the Beverly Hills Supper Club, and the B52 bomber that slammed into the Empire State Building confirm that getting out isn’t as simple as it seems. One major fire will make a believer out of anyone. The fire inspector must make sure that the owner or manager understands this.
“I know how bad a fire can be….”
How can a person know this? The results of a fire, such as financial and sentimental losses, are evident. But in no way can people imagine how bad a fire can be unless they put on bunker gear and 331 pounds of breathing apparatus in 80-degree weather and enter a burning building.
This reminds me of a saying I once heard: “Little boys dream of becoming firemen, but boys see only the brass and bells of the firehouse, not the choking hell that is a fireman’s real place of work.” “I’m a light sleeper and would smell the smoke….”
The truth is, the sense of smell is one of the first senses you lose when falling asleep and the last one you regain upon waking. Make sure this tenant understands that if he is awakened by smoke, he’ll find himself in a superheated atmosphere that will burn the lungs upon inhalation. That’s why a true fire inspector won’t sleep in any building unprotected by the basic smoke detector.
“What’s here to burn? The building has concrete walls and floors….”
Remind this person that the interior furnishings are the problem, not to mention the combustible roof trusses. Many owners may need to be shown (by means of videotapes or 16mm films) what a fire can do. The fire inspector’s sales ability will be needed to convince them of the devastation that could occur with limited combustibles.
“Why do I have to put in an exit door? I’d just break this window….”
Leaving through a window would be a last resort if sufficient exits were provided. Breaking a window would leave jagged glass exposed, and the owner would assume liability should anyone be injured exiting in this fashion.
Point out to the owner that the main reason for sufficient exits is so that a person would not be trapped by a fire or other emergencv without having an alternate escape route.
“I have enough exits for this building….”
The best answer is to explain that exit requirements are based on the occupancy classification and square footage of the establishment. Also explain that panic plays an important part in the number of exits needed. History shows that if the exits are clearly marked, panic can be reduced.
A place of assembly has one of the strictest exiting requirements due to the number of people who gather in these buildings. The front entrance must be large enough to allow 50 percent of the occupants to exit from it, and twothirds of the exits must be remote from the main entrance. In a panic situation, the majority of the people will head toward the main exit because this is the way they came in. Exits are based on unit widths of 22 inches per 100 people. This means that 100 people may exit through a 22-inch opening within a given period of time. Check your local codes on exit doors for the minimum size permitted.
“I have fire insurance_”
Adequate fire insurance gives the merchant a false sense of security. The inspector should point out that the insurance company may not be liable if the owner or tenant is aware of violations and ignores them. Also, mention that sprinkler systems and other fire prevention measures, whether required by codes or installed optionally, may result in lower insurance premiums.
“My insurance company says I can’t do that….”
Point out that insurance companies are very interested in fire prevention. Many owners and managers do not realize that insurance rates are based, in part, on such factors as the size and the quality of the fire prevention bureau and the records it keeps. Request anyone who made this statement to have the insurance representative contact you to resolve any disputes. It’s unlikelv that the fire inspector will receive a call from an insurance representative.
“I don’t care if my building burns….”
This is a hard statement for a rookie inspector to answer immediately, but it’s not an unusual one. This type of statement can serve as a warning flag, so the inspector should notify the arson investigators, and the exact wording of the statement should be documented, and then filed.
Many times, however, this is simply a frustrated individual whose business is not up to his expectations. He may not have anything to gain from his business burning. The inspector should remind this person that a fire in a building or residence puts the welfare of the community at risk. The owner’s individual loss or financial concern is of no consequence compared to a fire.
“Let me slide on this one….”
Many individuals think they can use the “good-ole-boy” approach. A statement such as, “Can you afford to support my family while I’m in jail?” will usually put a stop to this routine.
“Are you going to close us down?”
The general public assumes that by the flick of his fingers, a fire inspector may close a business’ doors. In fact, unless a situation poses a distinct and immediate hazard to life and property, closing down a business is a lengthy legal process.
Some occupants, for reasons personal or otherwise, come right out and say to the inspector, “I wish you would close this place.” Then they proceed to point out every violation conceivable. This person may have a valid complaint or may be an employee with a big chip on his shoulder. In the latter case, the person is trying to use the fire inspector to his own ends. Remember that if these people were truly concerned about hazardous conditions, they could have placed a call to the fire prevention bureau prior to the fire inspector’s visit.
“How much time do I have to get this done…?”
A useful approach is to ask the owner or occupant how long she feels she needs, based on the urgency of the problems. The occupant’s schedule will often suffice and sometimes even undercut the inspector’s schedule. Remember in scheduling to set priorities so that the most dangerous violations are corrected first.
When the fire inspector has set a schedule for compliance, and it hasn’t been heeded, a written violation may be in order. Every effort should be made to convince the owner or occupant that the schedule is not something you have arbitrarily pulled out of the air.
“I just spent my last few dollars and can’t afford to do that….”
Such a statement may be true. Many business owners have, in fact, invested their life savings in their business to get started, without having any reserve to draw from. While this is a depressing and saddening thing, it was not the inspector who created the predicament. The fire inspector must not let the financial problems of a tenant sway enforcement. Inform the tenant that he can’t afford a fire of any size, particularly if the business is new.
“What’ll it take to make you forget about all this…?”
Many business owners will joke with the inspector about taking bribes. But some are serious. This is a time to maintain a professional, no-nonsense attitude. This is no laughing matter. Discuss with your chief or fire marshal the proper steps to take in the event that you are confronted with a serious bribe offer.
“The alarm company said everything was OK. What do you mean it doesn’t work…?”
Advise the owner or occupant that if an alarm company was paid for a particular service, that company should be contacted. Promise that, if needed, you’ll meet with the alarm company to work out details. Due to human error, there’ll always be problems such as this one—and there will always be fires in buildings equipped with fire protection devices.
“I’d like a second opinion_”
The fire inspector shouldn’t be insulted when asked for a second opinion. The owner should be given the courtesy of a second review by the inspector’s superiors, unless the violation requires immediate compliance. Second opinions are especially valid if the violation is a matter of code interpretation. Certainly, some fire codes are debatable.
“You must be in cahoots with a fire equipment supplier….”
Again, this may be said as a joke. Be sure to advise the owner or occupant that a fire inspector can’t recommend a particular fire equipment supplier and isn’t permitted to favor a certain company for obvious reasons.
Knowing fire equipment dealers in your area can keep you abreast of any changes in their particular fields. Make sure these dealers understand that, although you may not mention any particular company to business owners, you are nevertheless willing to help them in any way should a question arise concerning local codes.
“I’m going to call my attorney….”
This is supposed to frighten the fire inspector. Hand the owner or occupant your business card; tell her that you’d like to talk to the attorney. Most of the people who take this approach are bluffing; the ones who aren’t will be told by their attorneys to correct the violations—then they wind up with a bill from the attorney. This is, of course, if you’ve performed your inspection properly and documented all violations.
“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take that…!”
The angry approach can be used in different ways. Building owners may try to involve the inspector in internal debates, or may aim their hostility at the inspector directly.
Internal disputes often occur with new business owners because, in many cases, they’ve spent their life savings on the business. Opening the business was a gamble and this may be a last-ditch effort for financial independence or survival.
Other business owners will become angry because they feel the inspector has singled them out from among all the other businesses. They’ll say something like, “I want you to inspect all the other places in town like mine.” Assure this person that you are doing just that; you are thorough and fair. After years of inspections I was able to reply, “I’ve already inspected the majority of them and if you’d like to give me the name and address of a particular establishment and file a written, formal complaint, I’d be glad to follow through with it.”
When a fire inspector has performed a textbook inspection and noted the violations, the only recourse an angry tenant may have is to complain about the inspector’s attitude. Complaining to the fire inspector’s superiors is a very good way for the citizen to cause a lot of grief. However, an inspector who shows consistency and fairness in each and every inspection—and documents the inspection-will sooner or later gain the confidence of superiors and city managers, and the occasional complaint won’t even be considered.
The most important thing to remember when confronted by an angry owner or occupant is to stay calm —don’t be suckered into a shouting match.
“We don’t want you around here. Get out before 1 have my friends throw you out…!”
The threat of violence is often used over some of the more subtle forms of persuasion. The inspector should play it cool. If you can, explain that next time you’ll be back with the police —that could settle the person down. If it doesn’t, simply leave as fast as you can, and bring the police back with you later on.
One of the most difficult inspections is that of the local pub. It can be like something out of the movies, walking into a crowd of toughs who have just gathered to share a brew and have been inconvenienced by this outsider who wants to conduct business during their time of relaxation. Once, when noticing a fleet of motorcycles outside a local bar, I told the inspector I was working with, “If we encounter problems inside, you fake a heart attack and I’ll have someone call for an ambulance.”
“You can’t look in that room….”
Fire inspectors may be denied access into certain areas of a business. The inspector may not violate a person’s Constitutional rights by invading their privacy. Know your codes and study case law involving right of entry. Generally, anywhere the public may go, you may go also. A person may be involved in a topsecret project or an illegal operation. Inspectors aren’t out to find stolen loot, uncover government secrets, or bust cocaine dealers.
Make appointments and don’t surprise occupants. If you come upon something illegal, back out gracefully and notify the police. Always carry a portable radio; at some point you’ll have to use it to call for backup police assistance. The “no response and grinning” approach…
Watch out! This person probably thinks you have no enforcement to back up what you’ve just told him. Until you have issued a formal citation or proven to him that you mean business, he will continue to behave in this fashion.
“What are you gohig to do if I say no…?”
This person is admitting to the violations and admitting that she doesn’t wish to comply. She’s testing the fire inspector. The inspector’s knowledge of the fire codes and the law will be put to use at this time. The fire inspector will have to use tact and forcefulness— not sarcasm. The best response is a simple statement such as, “Failure to comply will leave me with no alternative but to cite an official violation and refer you to the local judicial court or code board.”
If the owner or occupant wishes to know the consequences of being cited, the fire inspector should detail the options for noncompliance (provided a code enforcement board has been set up), one of which is a fine for each day the violation continues past the day set for compliance.
Inspections must be properly documented. Documented! Documented!
“Jdidn’t say that….”
Inspections must be properly documented. Documented! Documented! This can’t be stressed enough. With proper documentation the fire inspector won’t hear a statement like this one. The inspector should have the violations, the date corrections are to be made, and the date for reinspections recorded on official paperwork. One copy should go to the owner and another into the files.
When repeat violations are found, the inspected may profess that he wasn’t clear as to what was expected of him. That person may very well be confused, especially if you left verbal instructions only. To prevent this from happening, document. Document!
“I’ll just tell all my employees they’re getting laid off. I’ll just shut my doors…!”
This is a very popular excuse, believe it or not, but in my experience, not one business has closed its doors or laid off employees due to fire safety infractions. It can, however, unnerve a rookie inspector when headlines flash in his mind that read, “Inspector Causes Building To Shut Doors —100 People Without Jobs.” Don’t let the owner lay a guilt trip on you.
“I appreciate what you’re doing and respect your commitment and dedication to your profession. It’s people like you who keep us safe….”
This person is using psychological warfare, priming you for what is to follow. It’s the flattery approach. On the surface, these folks are as nice as can be. They’ll introduce the inspector to an assistant who will attempt to “resolve” all problems. Then the boss will disappear, never to show his face unless major, costly problems arise during inspection.
So the fire inspector ends up making two inspections, one for the assistant manager and another trip around to explain the violations to the executive manager or owner. This wastes a lot of time. Try to keep the boss there and interested on the first trip to the place —and don’t be too affected by flattery.
“I have a friend who has a friend who’s the third cousin twice-removed to the president of the Royal Order of Raccoons….”
Politics plays a large part in the inspection process. A fire inspector can’t let politics interfere with a fire inspection, but at the same time, must realize the political influence that does exist. It’s easier for a fire inspector to resist political pressure if he or she has the support of superiors and local politicians. Many politicians have to be educated as to the importance of stringent fire codes.
No honest politician will take the responsibility of signing a document that contradicts a fire marshal’s or fire chief’s ruling. The politician may, however, offer official opinions in hope of maintaining a workable relationship with the public, and those opinions may work against the fire inspector.
Politics also can hurt an inspector if support is drawn at crucial moments. Many times after a major fire the fire inspector may find that everyone else has taken steps backward, leaving her with the task of explaining what happened during the inspection process.
The best way to ward off political influence is to educate local politicians as well as the general public. Act like a salesperson whose product is fire safety awareness.
Seasoned fire inspectors have heard these excuses and so many more that they have developed, the attitude that everyone is guilty until proven innocent. If someone tells them it’s raining, they’ll look outside to verify it for themselves.
Don’t let that happen to you. There are people out there who are truthful—you can take their word that violations will be corrected when you return. You will be surprised how many individuals will go that extra step to make their business safer.
Your inspection should be a thorough, organized one. Incidently, an inspection can’t be performed without a flashlight. To conduct a thorough inspection you’ll need to look behind electrical appliances, behind partitions, and into drop ceilings. If a flashlight wasn’t used, the building needs a reinspection.
Working as a fire inspector opens your eyes to the outside world and provides a study in human nature. You’ll have to deal with people from all walks of life — including people who live in filth, who don’t have morals, and who may even be criminals. Despite this, you are expected to be courteous and present a professional image.
The best advice one can give to the new fire inspector is: Keep a positive attitude, and you’ll find that the good will outweigh the bad.