ICC Members: The individuals behind codes and safety — Tim Earl
Code professionals ensure building safety today, for a stronger tomorrow. As the individuals behind modern codes and standards, these professionals are responsible for ensuring the safety and compliance of codes and standards, shaping the safety of the world around us, and serve as the safety foundation for our buildings. They don’t just ensure that buildings are constructed to withstand the stress of everyday use, they are behind the security and stability of every building. They specialize in preventative measures to help communities weather unforeseen natural disasters and ensure that first responders have less to worry about and can do their jobs safely. Code professionals are an essential piece in the building and construction puzzle and are engaged in the building process from the initial building plan to the finished product.
The International Code Council is a member-focused association with over 64,000 members dedicated to developing model codes and standards used in the design, build and compliance process to construct safe, sustainable, affordable and resilient structures. They protect the public through their commitment to building safety; enforce code compliance to empower and educate stakeholders across the built environment to embrace and integrate safety standards in their work; support economic development by making our buildings studier, and therefore longer lasting. Their knowledge, skills, and abilities impact every building, in every community.
The Code Council recognizes the importance of continuing to grow awareness of the important work that code professionals do and the impact they have, in the hopes of encouraging aspiring building safety professionals to join in on the building safety movement. In this exclusive feature for the Building Safety Journal, we asked Tim Earl, codes and standards consultant for GBH International, to share his experience in the industry, highlights of his professional career, and any insights or advice he has concerning the industry and the future of building safety.
Codes and Standards Consultant
Portage, Michigan, United States
International Code Council member for 10 years
BSJ: What was the path to your career — how and why did you pursue a profession in building safety?
Earl: This profession actually found me. I left the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant commander in 2004, after two tours as a chief engineer and one as an engineering assessor for the Pacific Fleet. (An engineering assessor is similar to a code official in that we would inspect ships for their compliance with engineering regulations and grade them on fire drill.)
After testing the waters in two different industries, I hadn’t found the same level of job satisfaction I had in the Navy. That’s when Marcelo Hirschler, who I’d known for almost 15 years at that point, approached me about joining him in the fire safety industry. I started by installing and servicing fire test equipment but was involved with ASTM activities from the start, and ICC soon afterward. As our business has grown, I’ve assumed more of the codes and standards responsibilities, delegating the lab work to another engineer.
BSJ: What three things do you need to be successful in this industry and in your profession?
Earl: First, patience. This is critical. It is hard to explain our timelines to people outside this profession, and I suspect it frustrates many people who are new to it. It can take several years for your idea to actually appear in the code.
Second, the ability to compromise and find common ground. I tell people that my job is like politics should be, or perhaps used to be decades ago. You can’t approach it with black and white thinking. It’s one big gray area, and the people on the other side of an issue aren’t evil. They’re just representing another viewpoint or client interest. I make every effort to talk to people who may be affected by my code changes (or those whose changes will affect me or my clients) and find a solution that everyone can accept. My preference is to tell a committee that we worked together and agreed on something that’s not perfect for anyone, but at least acceptable to all. That’s more productive than digging into our respective positions, battling it out with diametrically opposed testimony, and hoping the vote goes our way. Those battles tend to be re-fought over the years, while the compromises stand the test of time.
Third, attention to detail. Once adopted by local jurisdictions, the code becomes law, so the language must be crystal clear to avoid misuse or misinterpretation. This also applies to the standards referenced by the codes. You can have the best idea for a potentially life-saving change, but it won’t work if it contains loopholes or ambiguity. I take pride in picking apart the language and sometimes coming up with interpretations nobody else has thought of. That’s how we make the code better.
BSJ: What role have mentors, advisors or your network played in your career?
Earl: Anybody who knows me professionally knows that I owe an enormous debt to my boss Marcelo Hirschler. It began with his idea to risk expanding GBH International by bringing me on in 2008. Then he immediately flooded me with more information than I had ever had to learn in college or my Navy training. It was truly like drinking from a firehose, and for years I dreaded the inevitable sigh I would receive when I asked him a question that he had answered at some point months or years ago. He is living proof that it’s possible for one person to know the code inside and out, and while I know I’ll never reach that level of familiarity myself, I can thank him for providing an example to aspire to.
BSJ: What led you to become an ICC member?
Earl: I became an ICC member shortly after joining GBH, when Marcelo realized he might have code changes come up in both tracks at the same time during Committee Action Hearings. So he gave me the crash code in the ICC process and threw me into the deep end. But we soon found that my familiarity with the standards, as well as my hands-on experience in the test labs, became an asset for code change preparation and testimony.
BSJ: Are you involved in any ICC committees or councils? Do you have any ICC certifications?
Earl: I attend Fire Code Action Committee meetings, but am not on any committees. I do not currently have any ICC certifications.
BSJ: How long have you been in the industry?
Earl: 11 years.
BSJ: What major changes have you seen?
Earl: Having “only” been involved with the codes for 11 years, I’m still considered a newbie. Having said that, I’ve lived through the introduction of the Online Governmental Consensus Voting system. It has proven to be a challenge since we’re no longer certain of the outcome when we leave Public Comment Hearings. In fact, I had one code change flip last year after the online voting, much to my disappointment. I’ve also seen a drop in attendance at hearings, which I hope is not related to the online voting process.
BSJ: What excites you about the future of your industry?
Earl: I’m excited about the new technologies and issues that are emerging in the marketplace, as well as the impending influx of more young members with fresh perspectives. To address that last point first, it’s no secret that the average age of code hearing attendees is pretty high (with the International Energy Conservation Code being a notable exception). We’ve already seen people starting to bring younger colleagues to the hearings to learn the process, and I suspect that in a few years I’ll be considered one of the “old folks.” This is a good thing for the process. Regarding new technologies and issues, I enjoy the discussions we have on how we safely integrate them into the built environment. In the past few years, we’ve dealt with mass timber buildings, energy storage systems, and marijuana processing facilities, to name a few. You never know what issue we’ll have to tackle next.
BSJ: What is one piece of advice that you would give to those starting out in the industry?
Earl: Don’t get discouraged. Just learning the codes and the revision process can be very time-consuming. Eventually, it starts to make sense, and suddenly you realize that you’re a subject matter expert. If you attend hearings and testify, you are going to lose many votes. That’s the nature of things. Just know that it gets easier over time. It took a couple of cycles for me to really find my groove and become comfortable testifying, but now I look forward to it.
BSJ: What do you see as most surprising about the work that you do?
Earl: The most surprising thing for me is realizing the impact that one person can have on the code, and by extension life safety. If you put in the time and effort, you eventually see that the work you’ve done matters, and if you write code proposals, you have tangible proof of that in the codebook itself.
BSJ: What would you like to do next in your professional/personal life?
Earl: I really enjoy the work I do, so my plan is to keep doing it, hopefully, more of the same. Eventually, I look forward to bringing on a protégé of my own and handing things off, so that I can continue to work on projects that interest me, but only as much as I want to. I have no plans to be one of those people that never retires, working on codes into my 70s.
BSJ: What do you enjoy doing in your leisure time?
Earl: I’m not very good at just relaxing, so I’ve ended up with more hobbies than I have time to devote to them. I enjoy kayaking and biking, so I take full advantage of the short season we have for both of those in western Michigan. My Thursday Boardgames and Beer Night with friends is a sacred time for me, preempted only by work commitments. I find the mix of casual conversation, good company, and some intellectual exercise very refreshing. It gives me something to look forward to during the week and helps keep my mind sharp.
If someone wrote a biography about you, what do you think the title would be?
Earl: Having a Big Mouth Can Be an Asset Instead of a Liability
There’s a world of opportunity in being a member of the International Code Council. Membership provides the tools to get the most out of each workday: from discounts on essential International Codes and other publications to the best prices on top-quality training and ICC certification renewals, Code Council membership helps budgets go further. Exclusive member benefits include code advice from expert technical staff as well as access to member-exclusive news and articles at the Building Safety Journal news portal. Plus, only Code Council members vote in the ICC code development process. An online Career Center allows job postings and searches for new job opportunities — all at no additional charge.
The Code Council offers numerous councils, committees, and resources to help code professionals grow and network with colleagues. Six discipline-specific Membership Councils offer members a place to come together and be a more powerful force in shaping your association, your industry, your career, and your future. Code Development Committees are an instrumental part of the ICC code development process and are responsible for the review and evaluation of code change proposals submitted to the International Codes. Professional Development Committees serve to better align the ICC education programs and certification programs to ensure that quality training is available to meet the needs of all members, customers and certification holders. Finally, the Value of the Code Official toolkit helps members to heighten awareness of the importance of code officials to their communities and to highlight the code official’s role as a helpful advocate for community safety, health and welfare, and economic development.