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Sprinkler Inspector Certification in Virginia

One Chapter’s Road to Draft State Legislation

Since its inception in 1992, the Virginia Chapter of the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA) has been proactive in fire sprinkler contractor licensing and has been instrumental in the development of current fire sprinkler licensing laws in Virginia. In 1993 a committee I chaired met with the Virginia Board for Contractors requesting that they establish a fire sprinkler contractor’s license that required competency in order to be licensed to design and install fire sprinkler systems in Virginia. There were no existing requirements in place in Virginia at the time of the request. At that point in history, the Virginia Board for Contractors was willing to work with chapter members to establish the law through the regulatory process. While this method took almost five years, it did not have to go through the Virginia General Assembly Legislative process which was a difficult and costly process.

The first order of business was to separate the current license into three categories: fire sprinkler, fire suppression, and fire alarm. Going through the regulatory process to separate the categories took two years of meetings, public hearings, and board presentations. Finally, in 1995 the change was approved, and the committee then started to develop the fire sprinkler license regulation. Drafts of the fire sprinkler licensing law were developed, evidence of NICET being a competent organization for the competency requirement was confirmed, and after 10 public hearings across Virginia, the Board approved the licensing regulation language and approved it in 1997 to be effective in 1998. This regulation had no grandfather provision and required financial competency, passing of Virginia business laws, and a NICET Level III on staff in order to be licensed as a fire sprinkler contractor in Virginia.

In 2009 the chapter, recognizing the need for fire sprinkler inspectors to be certified, again met with the Virginia Board for Contractors to address this issue. After a year of discussion, this issue was tabled. In 2011 the chapter met with the Virginia State Fire Marshal Ed Altizer and requested his office’s help with the Virginia Board for Contractors. This issue was addressed with the Virginia Board for Contractors in 2014, 2016, 2017, and again in 2018. At the 2018 meeting with the board, chapter members were told that the current administration was anti-regulatory and that the Board for Contractors would have to be told by the Virginia General Assembly that they would have to establish a regulation for the certification of fire sprinkler inspectors. 

Seeing that Virginia may never enact a fire sprinkler inspector’s certification requirement without General Assembly action, at the chapter’s June 6, 2018, board meeting, members established a special committee to work on legislation. The committee was co-chaired by Ed Altizer (then retired Virginia State Fire Marshal) and myself (as I was then executive director for the Virginia Chapter) with Hooper Loscomb of Eagle Fire (the chapter’s legislative chairman) also sitting on the committee.

In November 2018, the chapter hired Lobbyist Ed Rhodes of Rhodes Consulting to assist with the development of a bill requiring the Virginia Board for Contractors to regulate fire sprinkler inspectors. Rhodes is a retired firefighter who had become a lobbyist working for EMS and fire communities. The next order of business was to draft the proposed legislation and to find a sponsor by December 3, 2018. Ed Rhodes worked feverishly with Altizer and me to develop a draft bill. This proved to be difficult and time-consuming as the committee and Rhodes had to work through the Virginia legislative service staff, who needed to be educated on how contractors should be regulated. After seven versions, we finally drafted a version that both AFSA and the legislative staff could accept. 

While the draft was being developed, Rhodes was working hard to find a sponsor. He was able to convince Senator John Edwards (D-Roanoke Virginia) to sponsor our bill. The bill was submitted and designated as SB 1774.

In early January of 2019, the chapter committee met with the House and Senate General Laws and Technology committees for bill approval in order to advance to the full House and Senate floor. Rhodes and the chapter committee contacted state agencies such as the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, Virginia Association of Fire Chiefs, Virginia Fire Prevention Association (Fire Marshals), NFPA, and sprinkler contractor members to ask for support and testimony at these committee hearings.

The Senate General Laws and Technology Committee was first. Ed Rhodes was able to set up meetings with most of the 15 senators on this committee. Ed Altizer, Hooper Loscomb, Ed Rhodes, and I met with the legislators to give them clarity, express the importance of the proposed bill in terms of life safety, and give the legislators a chance to ask any questions they had about the proposed bill. Meeting with the committee members and having speakers lined up for the meeting helped a great deal. The committee also had spent a large amount of time reviewing this issue with Senator Edwards and he really came on board to push for this law to be passed.

During the Senate committee meeting, Senator Edwards made his presentation and Chairman Frank Ruff (R-Mecklenburg) asked for any opposition to speak. Being no opposition was present, Chairman Ruff moved for a vote and the bill was approved 14 to 1. The bill had two additional votes by the same committee members on successive days and passed each vote.

The House General Laws and Technology Committee came next. Rhodes set up meetings with all of the 22 committee members, which greatly helped. At the hearing, Loscomb and Altizer addressed the committee in support of the bill. Committee Chris Peace (R-Hanover) listened to Senator Edwards’ presentation and asked if there was any opposition. Fortunately, no opposition was present, and Chairman Peace moved for a vote. The vote was 20 for the bill and 2 against. This bill had two additional votes on successive days and the bill passed each vote.

Having passed the General Laws and Technology Committees in both Chambers, the bill then moved to the full General Assembly. On January 30, 2019, the Senate passed the bill and confirmed on the third reading on February 1, 2019, with a final vote of 38 to 2. On February 19, 2019, the House passed the bill on the third reading with a final vote of 87 to 12. 

Having passed both the Senate and House, the bill was sent to Governor Northam on March 4, 2019, and was signed on March 21, 2019, as an approved Virginia law. After the Governor’s approval, this bill was sent to the Virginia Board for Contractors for implementation.

At the April 30, 2019, Board for Contractors’ meeting, the new law was discussed, and the Board created a regulatory committee, including Altizer and myself as members, to implement the new law. The Virginia Board for Contractors’ staff was tasked with developing changes to the existing regulations to implement the new law.

The regulatory committee first met on June 11, 2019. I was elected vice chairman and the new law and its history of development were reviewed in detail. At its July meeting, the regulatory committee approved the proposed regulations. On August 24, 2019, the Board for Contractors met and approved the final regulations. During the public comment period (October 9–November 8, 2019) there were only nine comments, and all were positive.

The Virginia Board for Contractors now will start notifying fire sprinkler contractors on the requirement for all fire sprinkler inspectors to hold a NICET Level II certification in inspection and testing of water-based systems and licensed by the State of Virginia.

This law goes in effect July 1, 2021, giving fire sprinkler contractors essentially two years to have their staff become NICET certified so that they can be properly certified by July 1, 2021. The AFSA Virginia Chapter has taken steps to notify its fire sprinkler contractor members and to pass all this information on to the AFSA Chesapeake Chapter and the AFSA North Carolina Chapter.

The AFSA Virginia Chapter felt this process was important to share. It takes a lot of work and funding to get any legislative bill passed in state government, but we must work hard for issues to promote and better our industry including responsible licensing. In an industry in which much effort is taken to ensure that fire sprinkler systems are installed correctly when buildings are constructed, we feel strongly that the same level of effort needs to be placed on ensuring these systems are maintained in good working order and that the persons who inspect and maintain them have received the proper levels of training. Virginia Chapter members are pleased with our success on this issue and thank everyone who helped get this accomplished.

SIDEBAR:

REASONS FOR INSPECTOR CERTIFICATION 

The Virginia building code requires NFPA 25, Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems, inspections and NFPA 25 requires inspectors to be competent. Education and training, along with testing, is required to learn and demonstrate competence in understanding the standard. Sprinkler systems now are very complex with many types of systems and types of fire sprinklers. Many building owners do not maintain their system properly. Therefore, the only way for the systems to be maintained properly is to test them with an inspector who has been trained and certified to test them correctly in accordance with NFPA 25. 

Sprinkler systems must operate properly if called upon. Systems may sit 10, 20, or 50 years without operating and only proper inspections will ensure that they will operate when called upon. Sprinkler systems protect life and people may die if systems do not work properly when called upon in a life-threatening emergency. Sprinkler systems also protect property. Buildings may burn down if sprinkler systems do not work properly, not to mention the additional risk to the firefighting community thinking that they’re protected by a sprinkler system only to find out that the system does not work properly when they need it most!! 

There is no way to ensure that an inspector is getting continued education without certification renewals. Today anyone can do an inspection, with little or no experience. This is placing the lives of the Virginia community at severe risk by creating a false sense of security. 

REASONS WHY AN INSPECTOR MUST WORK FOR A CONTRACTOR 

Almost all legal issues in the fire sprinkler industry evolve from inspections and the only way an owner can be properly protected is to have the insurance policy levels that contracting companies have. Individuals may not be able to purchase the umbrella polices to have high levels of coverage. If there is no requirement for the inspector to be a contractor or work for a contractor, the contracting company has all of the liability (solely due to the insurance limits) without the control of the inspectors, who will become “independent” of the contracting company they’re working for. 

Sprinkler contractors have the knowledgeable staff and vendor contacts to deal with the complex systems, system variations, and the complexity of different types of sprinkler heads. No one individual operating independently would have such resources and vendors will not provide detailed information to people who are not a contractor and do not buy their products.

REFERENCES:
1. Senate Bill 1774. Available at https://legiscan.com/VA/
text/SB1774/2019.
2. Board for Contractors Tradesman Regulation Change
Available at Board for Contractors Tradesman Regulation
at https://law.lis.virginia.gov/admincode/title18/
agency50/chapter30. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: George Wagner is owner of Wagner Consulting Services and a business adviser for the fire sprinkler industry. He has served the industry for over 50 years, through Worsham Sprinkler Company, the AFSA Virginia Chapter, and the Burn Survivors Foundation. Wagner holds a NICET Level III in Automatic Systems Layout and numerous other certifications. He served on the national AFSA Board of Directors for five years and on several AFSA committees, and was the project facilitator for AFSA’s Inspection, Testing & Maintenance program to develop NICET Level II Inspectors. Wagner is the 2015 recipient of AFSA’s highest honor, the Henry S. Parmelee Award and is an AFSA National, Virginia Chapter, and NFPA Life Member.


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