It seems amazing that nine months have passed since I stepped into this new and exciting role as the president of the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA). Having spent over 40 years in the fire and life safety world, I had assumed that when I threw my hat in the ring, I would know exactly what to expect in this job—what to do and how to do it. I think back to a Saturday morning on the fourth tee at the Painted Mountain Golf Resort in Mesa, Arizona, when Russ Leavitt first suggested I’d be a good choice for AFSA and that I should apply for the position. Not intending to be humble, I recall telling Russ he was crazy, which he might be, but that has nothing to do with encouraging me to pursue the position. Russ and I have known each other for many years, and through it all, we have been competitors and business partners. I have been his employee, we’ve served on committees together, traveled and presented seminars together all over the globe, and, most importantly, we’ve been true friends… even closer.
Well, after nine months in this chair, I have seen many things I did expect and as many which I did not. I have always been passionate about our industry, and I have always had a strong commitment to our members and our common cause. Our profession is a noble one and one that is easy to romanticize. We save lives and property. What we do matters. Ok, they probably will not make movies about fire sprinklers (unless it’s a disaster film) or fire sprinkler installers, but we know how important it is to get things right, especially as it relates to our inspection, testing, and maintenance (ITM) work. Think about how many disasters have been avoided because one of us did the job to ensure our systems will work when called upon? We break it during testing, so we know it will work when that fire happens.
Let us put the most dramatic point on this that we can because we should put the importance of our ITM programs into proper perspective. I had dinner with Christopher Campion, P.E., who is one of our members from New Jersey (and mayor of his hometown). On July 3 he said to me that the building collapse in Florida was more than just a disaster for the victims, their families, and the first responders. There is also a very realistic parallel message to everyone in our industry who performs ITM work on fire protection systems because this could have and should have been avoided if the building owners had only taken heed and the appropriate action when inspectors expressed concern for the structural decay of their building. As I write this, please know that I have no facts about this horrific building collapse except for what has been reported in the news media. It has been reported that the city inspector(s) did caution the owners about the impending problem. It was reported that the HOA voted multiple times to wait rather than spend the money necessary to facilitate repairs.
How many of you have customers who do not respond or react to your deficiency reports? What should you do about that? Where do we draw the line when it comes to compelling a business owner to spend their money, whether maintenance budgets or capital expense budgets when we reveal the need to repair systems or replace components? How much liability do we think we should accept for a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars’ worth of inspection revenue?
In my opinion, it is fair and accurate to say that the owner owns the system(s), and we have done our job by reporting the deficiencies to them. They have the choice to do something about it or not. I am not sure where our legal responsibility ends and where our moral obligation begins, but, in my opinion, we should make it a practice to report serious deficiencies to our local Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). The adopted codes in all 50 states (here in the USA) give authority to the AHJ to enforce the adopted codes, standards, and local policies. In some states like Texas, it is mandatory to report critical deficiencies and impaired systems within a short timeframe.
Regardless of your view of this practice or your business practices, I do believe that consistency is critically important to avoid liability. I encourage you to have this discussion with your attorney, your local AHJ, and others to establish a policy that fits your organization before you are confronted with an unfortunate incident associated with a loss of property or worse. It does not matter that your firm may not have designed or installed the system(s) when your company name is on the inspection tag. As I have said so many times, what we do matters. That is real. The question is whether doing the job is limited to filing an inspection report or is going to the next level a responsibility we should consider. As a service provider, you should be clear about the scope of work you are proposing to perform and ensure your staff understands completely what services are included and excluded before they start. Communication is always the key.
I think it is imperative that your inspectors spend the time with the owner (or owner’s representative) to discuss your findings following ITM cycles and using NFPA 25 and especially the annex sections of chapter 3 to explain why noted deficiencies need correction and the potential consequences for their inaction. If you document everything as if you will end up in a deposition or courtroom, you probably never will. Of course, different circumstances may require different approaches. By that, I simply mean that residential occupancies, institutional facilities, and schools probably require a greater sense of urgency and demand more attention than warehouses filled with boxes and crates.
As we celebrate the 245th birthdate of America, there can be no doubt we are living in an incredible time both socially and politically. The pressures on merit shop contractors and the support of union labor by the current administration in Washington, D.C. are evident every time President Biden steps in front of a microphone. Your membership and support of AFSA are as important as it ever has been. I want to assure you that your Board of Directors and staff are focused on the issues that matter to our collective interests. We plan to continue to deliver best-in-class training programs for this industry. Revamped training programs and new offerings at every level will help ensure you have the workforce needed to grow your business and our industry. AFSA is leading the way with a talented, dedicated, and engaged staff who are eager to meet the needs of our members.
I’d also like to encourage each and every one of you who have not yet been vaccinated to do so as soon as you can. I understand some prefer to wait to see if those of us who have been vaccinated turn colors or grow a third arm, but, in all seriousness, the fastest way for us to return to some sort of normal is getting this virus in the rear-view mirror. Doing so will also add some level of comfort to our upcoming annual convention in September in San Antonio, which we all look forward to.
AFSA40 is shaping up to be our best annual conference ever. Registrations and booth sales exceed expectations. We have a great lineup of speakers and opportunities to expand your knowledge while reconnecting with old friends and meeting a few new ones. This convention is not the one to miss! Bring your jeans and boots and leave the suit and ties at home! This Texas-sized party is a sure bet to bring us back together to celebrate 40 years. See you there!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bob Caputo, CFPS, is president of the American Fire Sprinkler Association.