I recently retired as the fire marshal for Lynnwood, Washington, a suburb 20 minutes north of Seattle. It is a small, mostly commercial community with a daytime population of about 100,000 that drops to around 35,000 at night. The community is located at the confluence of two interstate highways and is bisected by two major state highways. It is the perfect location for the area’s regional shopping mall and all the associated strip malls that seem to congregate near a regional shopping center.
The city celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009. The fire department was organized 10 years after the city’s incorporation and began by hiring a fire chief and a fire marshal as its first two employees. The city founders’ goal was to minimize the size of the fire department by preventing fires, which would reduce the financial burden on taxpayers. Preventing accidental fires has become the culture of the organization.
As with most communities that depend on revenue from retail sales, Lynnwood’s dropped proportionally with the down economy. All city departments faced drastic cuts as revenues fell. Like all the city’s administrators, I began looking for more efficient tools and technologies to achieve performance measures. I found that the police department was light years ahead of the fire department in collecting data. If city leaders had questions regarding performance measures, the police department had the answers. The fire department had statistics based on the number of responses and timeline benchmarks, but there were inadequate data to support fire prevention performance measures. I felt the department should adopt a more efficient model like the police department’s.
In my search for data and efficiency tools, I met with representatives of Tegris Inc., based in Gig Harbor, Washington, which was promoting electronic functionality tests of life safety systems. In a nutshell, the company sends reminder notices to property owners to contact their service companies to conduct functionality tests of fire alarm, sprinkler, commercial hood, and a variety of other systems. Tegris then maintains a database of all submitted test reports. The database collects records of deficiencies, repairs, systems with problems, and those in compliance as well as institutionalizes property information for historical analysis.
As with all new programs, I approached this relationship with caution. But I found the outcome was positive within six months, and I had a database I could mine for specific performance measures within a year. The database, which is accessible on any mobile device, was useful on emergency responses as well.
Online electronic technologies are not new to the fire service. We use these technologies to bill for services, manage training or personnel records, and maintain our equipment. Electronic functionality test management is new to our industry, but it can become an engine that drives testing life safety systems to maintain historical data for years.
Lynnwood now requires electronic reporting. Functional testing has increased by more than 200 percent, and the platform has no cost to the city. Life safety systems are being maintained to a higher standard. Deficiencies are being corrected and buildings are safer. All service companies report using the same easy-to-read format. Test records no longer accumulate in file drawers or boxes. The database reminds users of overdue tests, who conducted the last test, and what properties are in compliance. The platform will also note what types of systems are in a building, where they are located, all the pertinent system information, and the person responsible for the building or life safety system.
The testing, inspection, and maintenance process is a symbiotic relationship between the private side of the life safety industry and the public side, but the relationship can occasionally be dysfunctional. At times, the property owner or property manager may not be willing to pay for a test without encouragement from code officials. Codes and standards require functional tests, but without enforcement from code officials, these tests can be delayed or ignored entirely. The private side of the industry is dependent on the enforcement activity of public officials.
The public side of the industry needs the expertise of private contractors to inspect, conduct tests, and repair deficiencies. But if a private contractor informs the code official of a deficient life safety system, that customer may seek another contractor to perform the test. Maintaining customer loyalty for private industry is important. Informing code officials of deficient life safety systems can adversely affect customer loyalty. Private contractors walk a very fine line between providing necessary services for compliance and competition from other contractors.
Still Not Widespread
The number of jurisdictions using electronic test reporting is small. Those jurisdictional authorities currently using the platform are finding it drives enforcement and improves the intervals of testing, inspection, and maintenance. Compliance improves, making fire prevention more efficient on a limited budget. After owners, service companies, and authorities are connected, test reports populate the database, which can be mined for performance measures while creating relationships in the community.
Given the economy’s downturn and tight jurisdictional budgets, the fire service is forced to explore new management ideas and concepts. Electronic reporting of functional tests is a new idea with merit that can help connect property owners, private service companies, and the fire service to promote a safer working and living environment.
LeROY W. McNULTY worked for 36 years in the fire service in two different Washington fire departments. He retired as assistant chief of fire prevention services, fire marshal for Lynnwood, Washington, in March 2011. He now serves as a client representative for Tegris Inc., an electronic test reporting company located in Washington. He has a BS in business management and three ATA degrees in fire service disciplines.