Be Ready for Questions and Criticism
By Raymond A. Walker, Jr.
President, International Fire Marshals Association
Fire Marshal, Bolton, CT
December 20, 2016
Once again national events are putting the spotlight on our colleagues involved with inspections and code enforcement. It seems like only a few weeks ago the issue was that fire marshals were criticized for enforcing occupancy limits in places of assembly. In fact those criticisms in the media and the questions they raised led me to write an article for the NFPA’s Xchange supporting local code officials and explaining the code basis of occupancy limits.
Now a fire in an old, and at one time, vacant factory & warehouse has changed the focus from being criticized for doing our job to one of who is doing what. However, let me be absolutely clear, this is not written to criticize anyone or suggesting that anything was done wrong in any community, rather it is being written to ring an alarm bell for all of us that our work, and we ourselves at any time can and likely will be questioned, criticized, and perhaps even attacked.
I do not think our best response should be based upon “there aren’t enough people, the budget has been cut, etc”. Although these are, in many communities, very valid issues. Instead I am suggesting that this is an opportunity to be proactive and be sure our house is in order. So let’s set frustration aside and focus on setting in motion what we know we can do and build upon what we are doing.
The tools are all around us and while the problems may change the historical need to tackle them has been with us for some time. For example in 1914 fire officials in Portland, Oregon evaluated home inspections, in 1947 President Harry Truman called a President’s Conference on Fire Prevention, in the 1970s America Burning was published, in the late 1990s British Fire Chief Tony McGuirk reevaluated his fire prevention efforts, and recently there was a 2009 study undertaken in Hamilton, Ontario.
Today we have the benefit of these efforts and access to such tools as Community Risk Reduction programs, and a myriad of research and published articles from such sources as the US Fire Administration, the National Fire Academy, and the National Fire Protection Association. Today’s programs incorporate what was learned in the past such as the 3 principles coming out of President Truman’s; conference i.e. the use of education, enforcement, and engineering.
All of us need to constantly look at what we are doing and ask ourselves are we moving in a positive direction best utilizing the resources we have available? We need to look at our programs and constantly reevaluate them with an emphasis on outcomes not just on outputs. Our critics and sometimes perhaps even our supporters will ask; what are you doing, is it working, how do you handle this or that?
Since it is likely that in the coming days, weeks, and months we will face even more of these questions and for many of us in local and state government we are entering that time of year when budgets are being developed, This is an opportunity to explain what we do, how we do it best, and what is needed to be successful, remembering that our success’s prevent fires and saves lives.
Lets set ourselves on the road to being able to show what it is we do best; for example, be prepared to show how many inspections are being done, how they are scheduled, what are the priority properties, how do we exercise reasonableness and yet maintain a standard of due diligence in our post inspection follow up and enforcement actions. Be prepared to show how we respond to complaints and yet respect the rights of all we serve, how do we find and identify the properties and/or uses that are trying to operate below the radar of the code enforcement authorities. We need to remember that success requires constant feedback and reevaluation so we can adjust our practices in response to the ever changing environment of fire and life safety issues.
Besides my thoughts and the history of fire prevention we have access to nationally recognized procedures and best practices often captured in such published or in process NFPA documents as NFPA 1452, NFPA 1730, and NFPA 1300.
Finally, I will ask you to reach out to your peers and colleagues, as they are our best resources. None of us are alone in the world of fire prevention and public safety, remember the IFMA Executive Board is made up of your peers and colleagues and IFMA itself with Chapters throughout the US and Canada is a very valuable resource for sure.