Building official and fire marshal relations: Benefitting employees and the community
Anyone serving in a public service regulatory capacity understands that we live in a time where the public has very little patience for increasing government interference in their lives and businesses. Very few of them see or even try to understand the role we play and the value of the service we provide to them in protecting their lives and property. Let’s face it, “it ain’t cool” to be a government regulator these days, and we often have to reach down deep to find a sense of purpose. Reaching out to one another at times reminds us of why we are here and what our mission is, hence the value of International Code Council chapters related organizations.
One or two slip-ups in service delivery, however, can otherwise confirm what an already skeptical public believes — correct or not — and can take years to overcome. One of the worst types of such scenarios, as well as one of the most difficult to control, is when two departments with otherwise overlapping roles act inconsistently. This often manifests itself in the dissemination of contradictory information, conflicting inspection results or, worst-case, speaking detrimentally about one another in front of the customer, whether directly or through innuendo.
Though this type of “rift” can and does occur between any number of departments, it seems to be an all-too-frequent occurrence between building inspection and fire marshal departments. Problems both reported and observed seem to range from virtual lack of communication to disdain bordering on outright animosity. Since the duties of these offices often overlap with respect to enforcement of fire and life safety provisions in the building and fire codes, lack of substantial coordination, understanding and cooperation between the two will create opportunities for breakdown, which translates into conflict and confusion for the customer, bad public relations for the jurisdiction and, worst of all, a potential for failure to properly protect the public.
Jurisdictional turf wars are nothing new to large organizations and government agencies are certainly not immune. However, building and fire departments need to understand that they are both charged with fulfilling the same mission — the protection of life and property through the effective and efficient administration of fire and life safety codes.
Building officials must realize that the prescriptive codes they enforce are largely grounded in the physics of fire science, fire protection technology and the study of human tendencies in which fire marshals are well trained. That being the case, there is much that can be learned from their fire department brethren, and they should take every opportunity to do so. Similarly, fire marshals can learn valuable information from their building officials with regard to engineering and building construction technology. The benefits that can accrue to both departments from a cooperative, inclusive type of relationship should be obvious. In so doing, the professionalism of both is increased exponentially, the public ultimately benefits and both departments have the opportunity to shine.
The city of Lubbock, Texas, is fortunate to have an excellent relationship between its building and fire departments. We find that continuous, candid and respectful communication; the free exchange of ideas, knowledge and opinions; common training sessions; and joint involvement in all decisions that affect the fire and life safety mission are key to a continuing and fruitful relationship that ultimately benefits our citizens and customers.
Examples of interactions that have proved beneficial in this regard include periodic meetings among key staff — whether management, plan review or field inspection personnel from both shops — covering recent training topics of mutual interest, plan review areas of overlapping concern or problems encountered in the field. Cross-training and discussion on the various applicable code documents, such as the International Building Code, the International Fire Code and NFPA 101 – The Life Safety Code as they relate to particular occupancy classifications is always interesting and fruitful and lends perspective to both disciplines.
The U.S. Fire Administration has long seen the value in a cooperative relationship between the fire and building inspection services as well as the contribution of the latter to the fire prevention equation. As a result, they have provided access to numerous training opportunities — from online courses and “Coffee Break Bulletins” (a great mutual training opportunity) through their website to one- and two-week courses at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md. Many of their offerings are now geared towards building codes and standards. In fact, their competitive selection process for on-site attendance at the National Fire Academy also gives extra credit to jurisdictions who “pair up” their fire service and building code officials for joint training. We have done this and we have found it extremely rewarding and beneficial.
The mutual support that we gain here in the city of Lubbock from a great relationship between our respective services has repaid us, and the citizens we protect, time and again. It is well worth the effort.
Steve O’Neal, CBO, Director of Development Services, City of Lubbock, Texas
Garett Nelson, Fire Marshal, City of Lubbock, Texas