By Author(s): Jim Crawford 
Published Friday, March 20, 2009
| From the December 2006  Issue of FireRescue 
Recently, a friend of mine and I had a discussion about managing inspectors that reminded me of some problems I encountered in the past. Years ago, as a new fire marshal, I was naturally concerned about how I'd handle the new job and how I would be perceived. I had good intentions and a pretty good idea of what I wanted to get done.
But my first years were especially challenging; although I was fire code-certified and trained, I'd never actually been an inspector. Studying the field and performing hands-on training didn't prepare me for some of the situations I would encounter as a manager. There were many aspects of the inspector's job I didn't yet understand.
Shades of Gray
Abandoning requirements for smoke alarms or fire sprinklers is one extreme example of code interpretation; allowing an extra foot of travel distance for a fire extinguisher falls at the other end of the spectrum. Most examples we encounter exist somewhere between the two. If I learned anything quickly in those early years, it was that the fire code is not black and white.
In fact, the fire code itself gives the fire marshal the authority to dismiss portions deemed impractical in certain situations. To do so garners risk, of course, because the code was written as it was for good reason. Interpretations of the code must, therefore, be duly considered. But there are shades of gray.
We in the fire service have for years discussed performance codes, and the fire code includes language allowing alternate methods and materials to achieve the "same" level of protection. Determining what's truly an equivalent level of protection is again a matter of interpretation. So how does this play out during inspection?
It means that a supervisor and an inspector might hold different ideas about how compliance is to be accomplished. They may have different views about when to provide some leeway and when to follow the code literally. Further, they may disagree about equivalency of fire protection.
Over the years, whenever I was asked to evaluate an alternative approach to the fire code, I sought out other opinions. Setting up an appeal process that involves more than one brain makes sense to me because it allows for the airing of a broad range of options. But in what sort of position does this leave the inspector?
In the course of our conversation, my friend reminded me of something I'd heard as a new fire marshal. He told me that he didn't want to appear to undermine the inspector by evaluating his take on the fire code. He felt that his code interpretation might be perceived as questioning the judgment of the inspector. But the job of interpreting the code is the fire marshal's, not the inspector's. So why might an inspector feel undermined when a fire marshal makes a code interpretation?
We all view things differently. Some of us are more structured and like to see things in black and white. Others, like me, are more prone to see shades of gray. An inspector who makes a call on a code interpretation and gets locked into it is more likely to view any other opinions as undermining his or her authority. At least I've seen this more than once.
Perhaps you've heard of "badge heavy" people who see questions about their decisions as a threat to their power. Inspectors on a power trip are dangerous: They make for a bad working environment and might indirectly put the public at risk by making the wrong call. We must all be willing to work cooperatively toward the best possible outcome for the public, which entails weighing all sides.
Training inspectors to perceive the fire code as something more flexible staves off potential power struggles. Instead of being intractable and viewing feedback or advice as personal challenges, they will seek to resolve the issue. In other words, teaching that the fire code is subject to interpretation decreases the chances that an inspector will grow defensive and inflexible.
And ultimately, by implementing an appeal and review process and leaving the evaluation of exceptions to the fire code to the fire marshal, inspectors will limit their own liability.
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