Training Helps Students Succeed and Companies Grow
Are you looking to grow your business? Do you have employees seeking advancement opportunities within your company? Do you believe in the value of training? If so, then look no further than the American Fire Sprinkler Association’s (AFSA) ITM (Inspection, Testing and Maintenance) Inspector Development Program. With Group 1 completing the first half of the program, AFSA looks back on the program’s creation, current content, and what the future holds for this much-needed training.
“The industry has really moved into ITM as a primary profit center in their businesses and to do that you need specifically trained people,” comments Bob Caputo, Fire & Life Safety America, Richmond, Virginia, one of the program’s writers. “This is a solid, cradle-to-grave career. This is a path to formal training for people new to the industry and people who have worked in the field and want to spend their last 10 years doing something else like ITM.”
The Need for ITM Training
It all began in 2009 when AFSA’s Apprenticeship & Education Committee met to discuss the need for an inspection-training program. A sub-committee was created to explore developing an ITM program to teach inspection using online training. In 2012, Allison Rees of Sunland Fire Protection, High Point, North Carolina, was appointed chair of the ITM Development sub-committee. That sub-committee surveyed AFSA contractor members to determine the need and interest in an ITM program.
“The survey was sent out in late 2012 and 99.4 percent of sprinkler contractors said they did inspections and 83.3 percent said they needed a means to train their ITM staff,” remembers George Wagner, a member of the ITM sub-committee. “This initial survey set the basis for the development of the ITM program. Follow-up surveys to industry experts and to AFSA chapter leaders overwhelmingly supported the development of a formal program similar to AFSA’s apprenticeship program.”
While conducting an exhaustive and comprehensive search on current ITM programs training available and what was needed to serve the needs of AFSA members, AFSA At-Large Director and Treasurer Jack Medovich, P.E., Fire & Life Safety America, Hanover, Maryland, shared an outline based on the ITM training program at his company. The ITM Development Committee adopted this outline as a proposed starting point. In early 2015, the outline was finalized and approved.
Volunteering to serve as the program’s facilitator, Wagner developed a four-person ITM Review Committee and a schedule for the full ITM program development. The committee recruited Caputo and Russ Leavitt, Telgian Corporation, Phoenix, Arizona, to be the industry expert writers of the program.
“This program is really geared towards taking the role of inspector and making it a true profession,” says Leavitt. “We teach about different types of systems, calculations to determine flows, and the theory behind it. We teach them not just the mechanical part, but what hydraulics is and how does that play into the job. It also teaches about dealing with customers, written and verbal communications skills, and how to handle difficult customers and things that they’re going to encounter.”
“Russ and I were seeking to not only create the industry’s most comprehensive training program for ITM, we were also intent on creating a new breed of professional people within our industry,” comments Caputo. “In addition to teaching only existing field people, we’re also hoping to create a whole new category of people in the industry who are just inspectors, solely dedicated to the craft of ITM functions, which we think is an ongoing critical factor of fire sprinkler systems.”
The initial program development was completed prior to the original deadline of December 31, 2016, and dedicated to its initial leader Allison Rees.
“Allison worked diligently for the development of this program for the sprinkler industry and pushed for surveys to confirm the need and worked on the early drafts of the program outline,” comments Wagner. “When we lost Allison in late 2014, the Apprenticeship & Education Committee requested that the ITM program be dedicated in the memory of Allison and this was approved by the AFSA Board of Directors.”
The ITM Development Committee believes this training program benefits the fire sprinkler industry by professionalizing the inspector role and better educating personnel.
“These inspectors will truly represent their employers as a professional. We spend time on that aspect in the program’s second year as students role-play, dealing with customers in different scenarios,” states Leavitt.
Wagner adds: “In eight to 10 years many of these employees could become leaders in their company and in the fire sprinkler industry. The primary objective of the ITM program was to develop a comprehensive training program to take a green employee and train them to a level where they receive a NICET Level II certification in ITM in less than two years. This would give sprinkler contractors a new path to hire employees for ITM positions and develop professional ITM inspectors in a very detailed, consistent and verifiable manner. This would also give sprinkler contractors the opportunity to hire from recruitment sources not previously available on a large scale.”
The ITM Development sub-committee suggests to contractor members that they hire two-year Associate of Science degree or four-year Bachelor of Science degree graduates. This program puts the sprinkler contractor in a position to hire more educated personnel and give them a true career path resulting in increased responsibility and higher compensation in several years’ period of time.
“This program is very detailed in NFPA 25 [Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems] requirements, but also understanding NFPA 13 [Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems] and other installation documents so there is a core understanding of how fire sprinkler systems are designed and their intended function when initially installed,” comments Caputo.
Volunteers’ Time and Talent
This program couldn’t have been developed without the time and expertise of its committee members: George Wagner, member of AFSA’s Apprenticeship & Education Committee and executive director of the AFSA Virginia Chapter; Lyle Hall, AFSA Region 1 Director, Western Fire Protection, Poway, California; Tom McKinnon, Aegis Fire Systems, Inc., Pleasanton, California; Jack Medovich, P.E., Fire & Life Safety America; and Chris Stason, Victaulic, Temecula, California. The ITM Review sub-committee consists of Jeff Lewis, VSC Fire & Security, Ashland, Virginia; Jack Medovich; AFSA Past Chairman of the Board Jack Viola, P.E., JFV Engineering, LLC, South Hadley, Massachusetts; and AFSA First Vice Chairman of the Board and At-Large Director Wayne Weisz, Cen-Cal Fire Systems, Inc., Lodi, California. AFSA’s Director of Education Services Leslie Clounts serves as staff liaison to the sub-committee.
Wagner commends everyone’s hard work. “This program wouldn’t have been developed without everyone’s commitment and dedication. In addition, Leslie Clounts and other AFSA staff who have worked on the finalization of this program should be highly commended for the detailed and professional job they did preparing it for the students,” he says.
Program Set Up
AFSA’s ITM Inspector Development Program utilizes on-demand and live training courses combined with a robustly structured on-the-job training (OJT) and mentoring program with the goal of candidates passing NICET Level II water-based inspection certification exams in less than two years. This comprehensive program provides recommendations for implementation at every level and the need for a successful, ongoing program right from the start, including:
- Hiring recommendations,
- Applicant screening tips,
- Training record keeping,
- Trainer tips,
- Pay scale suggestions,
- Progressive training guidelines,
- OJT guide,
- Candidate sample promissory note, and
- Training and development program developed by seasoned industry experts with 65-plus years of combined industry experience and 50-plus years of teaching the fire protection community around the globe.
AFSA delivers a blended learning environment with this program, which includes:
- Fifty-six hours of on-demand courses;
- Twenty-one hours of live, interactive web instruction;
- Seven days of live in-class lecture;
- Three-and-a-half days of hands-on field testing and inspections;
- Limited class size to maximize student learning outcomes;
- Encouraging and fostering character-building traits: honesty, integrity, confidence, professionalism, neat appearance, organization, reliability, accountability, credibility; and
- Strengthening communication skills, both written (for noting inspections and testing observations) and verbal (communicating with your customers).
“The program is rigorous,” comments Leavitt. “The module examinations are more difficult than the NICET exams and that is part of the goal. We’re working on a true education on inspections, testing and maintenance. We want them to think about what they’re doing and why. So it’s not just about the right answer, but why it’s correct and not something else.”
Dwight Green, Accredited Training Solutions, San Antonio, Texas, is a classroom trainer and webinar instructor for AFSA’s ITM program. “This is one of the most comprehensive programs I’ve delivered and I’ve done a lot of teaching throughout the years,” he says. “It takes the neophyte from the very basics through inspections and yet it does so without boring the more experienced person. People who have lots of experience and are taking it just to get certified will learn something new and yet it’s not over the head of someone who’s just starting out. The information has been put together so that it all builds on each other. Even the most experienced person will glean something out of it, in addition to being able to prepare for the test,” Green adds.
AFSA recently completely renovated and updated its training center to better suit the needs of its ITM and other training programs and now provides a state-of-the-art venue for live classroom training.
“The live classroom time allows for personal experience injections,” Green notes. “As an instructor, it’s nice to not have to read the material verbatim. That fosters classroom discussion and sharing and we all get the benefit of others’ experiences. The webinars are a great learning tool, but the classroom part is excellent for students to receive more than their company or personal perspective.”
Howard Clay, VSC Fire & Security, Inc., Virginia Beach, Virginia, also serves as an instructor for the program. “There is absolutely a need for this program in the fire sprinkler industry,” he says. “This program shines a light on this facet of the trade. AFSA offers a great base platform for disseminating the information through the ITM program. Having a multitude of instructors, students receive a more well-rounded view of the material since it comes from multiple instructors’ experiences. The way the program is formatted, having recorded webinars, live webinars, and classroom instruction, is well thought out. The combination, especially with class interaction, generates a lot of discussion with students’ different experiences and feedback. It’s an invaluable way of learning. Structuring in-class time is an excellent way to run this program,” Clay adds.
Group 1 students are also weighing in on the program on evaluation forms. “I feel that this program will help me become a professional in my field. [This] has been an excellent career choice for me,” says one student.
Another student comments: “Before this course, I had no idea of what the fire protection field could provide, not only for the employee/employer, but how beneficial it is for the outside world. To be an inspector, one needs integrity and respect to be able to assure that a fire system is beneficial for the quality of life. Fire sprinklers saves lives and to be the key person to inspect that system is a great responsibility. I respect the fire protection field and I am proud to be in this industry. I do believe this is a great career choice for anyone that has respect for life safety.”
Clay also notes that VSC has an employee in the program who has enjoyed it and says he’s learning a lot. “We are pleased to have a program that will develop industry skills. We are vested in the program’s success and are excitedly anticipating the graduation of the first class to see what they have learned and how they will positively impact the industry.”
Who’s the right student for this program?
Ideal candidates may include existing staff members, local community college fire protection or firefighter program graduates, aging installers, military service veterans, and others with the aptitude and attitude needed to become a professional inspector.
There are numerous responsibilities for both the student and employer during this program. The student is expected to:
- Commit approximately three hours a week to program studies. Much is online and on-demand.
- Keep pace with program activities, including OJT tasks lead by your supervisor as recommended in the program. This helps to ensure your readiness for pre-scheduled NICET exams.
- Pursue studies to attain passing scores of 70-plus on each assessment and exam.
- Maintain professional appearance and demeanor.
Employer responsibilities include:
- Vet/recruit the right candidates for this program. Consider a probationary period and use of a promissory note (template included in the program) before enrollment.
- Designate an in-house supervisor/instructor to the student to oversee student’s ITM training.
- Be someone the student can approach with questions.
- Adhere to the activities and related timeline with regards to OJT tasks as recommended in the program. This involves documenting and verifying work experience as required by NICET as part of their certification process. This also ensures the student keeps pace within the program cycle and is duly prepared as each new phase of this comprehensive program begins.
Leavitt adds: “Students won’t succeed in this program without the direct involvement of someone in their employer’s realm. They need a mentor and someone to help guide them through this. It’s fascinating that when these students complete the coursework portion and as they’re working we find out they often become the teachers, because others in the company aren’t as well versed in what NFPA 25 requires or the best practices. These students’ mentors are needed for the hands-on learning in the field, but students often become teachers on what is right procedure and what needs to be done when. This program will elevate everyone in the company if they will allow it,” he concludes.
Why should employers take advantage of this training?
“Investing in this ITM training program will result in an actual increase in sales dollars and, better yet, lessen the chance of having a water damage/insurance claim,” comments Wagner. “The cost of tuition is probably less than the deductible on one claim.”
“This formalized training program touches the trainee visually, conversationally and tactilely and that is our goal. It’s an opportunity for businesses to expand in a planned way with a program that not only trains participants, but steers the company towards success and away from liability,” adds Caputo.
Jeff Bridges, JB Fire Protection, Inc., Fullerton, California, currently has an employee enrolled in AFSA’s ITM program. “Our employee’s knowledge of NFPA 25, as well as his confidence, has clearly been elevated to the next level, and this is only four months into his training!”
“I’ve always run an in-house training program, so this was a difficult decision to turn over some training to another source. I’ve been extremely pleased and look forward to enrolling additional employees in the AFSA ITM program in the future,” Bridges concludes.
Ed Cook, Performance Fire Protection, Mooresville, North Carolina, has two employees in the program. He says: “When we’re looking to hire qualified inspectors, there is a general lack of people qualified out there for us to hire. We also prefer to hire and train from within. We were excited when this program first was introduced because it was an avenue to enable us to put some of our younger people through and be trained the right way on how to fill our growing inspection service department. We couldn’t have done this training on our own.”
David DeSear oversees the inspection department for Performance Fire Protection concurs. “We’ve always found it difficult to fill a position when we’ve needed to and we’ve always seen a need for ITM training. There really wasn’t anything out there in the past for inspectors. This program helps us promote within and receive that additional training that we don’t normally have time to do internally.”
Cook notes that ITM is the fastest growing part of Performance’s business. “If we can train a couple of inspectors each year, it could be our pipeline to help accommodate our growth and enable us to continue this very vital service to our industry.”
“Using feedback from the participants, trainers and others who are involved, we will continue to tweak this program to improve it,” says Wagner.
Leavitt concurs. “This program will constantly be evolving. It will have to be continuously upgraded as new standards are issued, as NICET revises its requirements, and as new best practices are identified. The intent is that we stay on top of that so that each succeeding class is coming out with the most current and best practices,” he says.
Clounts commends the volunteers who have worked so hard on this program. “It has been a real privilege to collaborate with the incredible team of writers, development and review committees, instructors, and staff – everyone working to achieve the same goal: to professionalize the role of the inspector. Initial development of all program learning content has been completed thanks to these focused individuals.
“Seeing the AFSA members respond by enrolling and entrusting their trainees to this new program, while hearing the positive feedback from both student and employer, reinforces our drive to continue improving upon this successful training journey.”
Caputo agrees that AFSA is dedicated to training and the fire sprinkler industry. “This program should prove to members and non-members that AFSA exists to further and benefit the interests of the fire sprinkler industry and AFSA membership,” he concludes. “AFSA is responding to the direction the fire sprinkler industry has taken for members to avail themselves of the growing ITM segment.”
Register for Fall Session
AFSA is now accepting enrollment for the Fall 2017 session, which begins with a live webinar on October 16, 2017. A special introductory registration price is currently being offered: $3,600 for AFSA members (payment 1: $2,500; payment 2: $550; payment 3: $550) or $7,200 for non-members. Registration is open to AFSA members only until six weeks prior to the first class. For more information visit AFSA’s ITM webpage at firesprinkler.org/itm.
“This alone should be the reason that non-members join AFSA,” concludes Caputo. “Apprenticeship training is enough, but this program should be a great motivator if that wasn’t. This program will help build the service side of your business and help you stay clear of the negative impacts of legal actions or liability issues. If contractors are looking to grow business and personnel in a professional way, this is the place – the only place – this type of program is provided.”