When it comes to the fire protection industry I often hear people say, “What is that? Do you mean like fire extinguishers and smoke alarms?” I smile when I hear that. While that is true, those things are only a part of it. The real answer is that the Fire Protection Industry is the service of installing and/or maintaining any piece of equipment that prevents or suppresses a fire or that alerts people to the detection of fire. The intent is to save lives.
But it also illustrates a point. Many don’t realize there is a whole industry dedicated to fire prevention. And those that do, realize that the fire protection is not performed consistently throughout the province.
But there is an industry. And its supported by the British Columbia Building Code and British Columbia Fire Code, documents adopted by the BC Government as law, outlining all the things British Columbians are required to do as business and property owners, to prevent fire. This includes things like installing and maintaining fire extinguishers, smoke alarms, fire alarm systems, exit and emergency lighting, and sprinkler systems, where required to do so in the code. It also states that it is the responsibility of the owner to carry out the provisions of the code. While they are responsible, most turn to the Fire Protection Service companies to conduct the actual service work.
Sounds simple enough, right?
For British Columbinians, it is not. Why? There are a number of contributing reasons.
Cost. Obviously any safety equipment comes with a price. It costs money to install life safety equipment and it costs money to maintain it. So understandably building owners will be cautious about their budgets and expenditures. And understandably no one wants to spend more than is required. Yet the requirements set out in the code are there for a reason. They are there for our protection. But we need to acknowledge that there is a cost incurred and as a result not everyone will be quick to adhere to all the requirements of the code.
Clear regulations. In order to follow the requirements of the code one has to know what the requirements are and has to understand them. Where one issue lies is that the two documents are written in “code” language, legal language that for some who are unfamiliar with it, can find it challenging to understand. Additionally, the two documents have historically been difficult to acquire and expensive to purchase. They are now free to view online here but they are admittedly difficult to read and navigate. So as a result of a lack clarity and transparency there has been a great deal of misinformation.
To illustrate, some have felt that it is like driving on a road with poorly marked speed limit signs. They want to comply but don’t know what is required of them. This issue has led most people to look for answers elsewhere. So people often turn to either their Fire Protection service provider or to their local fire department, and typically to the Fire Prevention Officers themselves, when they conduct their regular inspection.
However here lies the problem. Is the information being passed on accurate?
Before we answer that question, we must acknowledge that there are many individuals in the fire protection industry and in the fire departments that are very knowledgeable and are very experienced when it comes to the code and what is required of business and property owners. However this is not always the case and we must remember that it is each owner’s responsibility to carry out the requirements of the code. So if an “owner” were to be found negligent for some reason, by not fulfilling the requirements of the code, it would not be admissible to simply say “well so-and-so told me.” Going back to our illustration of speed limits, if someone was pulled over for speeding and explained to a police officer that the reason that they were speeding was because someone told them it was ok, how do you think the officer would respond? The driver would likely receive a fine regardless of the stated reason. Drivers have a responsibility to know their limits. Likewise building owners also have the same responsibility to know what is required of them. And so building owners have a right to know what those requirements are.
Qualified Service Technicians. Since most building owners use Fire Protection companies to service their life safety equipment, and since there is so much to know with both the code requirements and with the life safety equipment itself, one can quickly see the need for qualified service technicians. ‘Qualified’ would imply that the persons servicing the equipment in question, would have adequate understanding of the code requirements and be skilled enough to service the equipment properly. However, how does one demonstrate that they are qualified? Usually through certification. In other words a service technician has taken some form of training and testing and proven that he knows enough to be qualified, and has met some minimum standard. And usually this is done through some accredited training facility. Whatever the details the service technician has already demonstrated that he is qualified and has received certification prior to having serviced the equipment. This seems reasonable, and most will recognize a similar program with other trades like Electrical or Plumbing. Now, while there are several different programs available for fire protection technicians, and while the BCFC does state that persons servicing life safety equipment should be qualified, the Government of British Columbia has no minimum requirement for certification. As a result there is no way to prove that a fire protection technician is qualified, and that their work is being conducted properly.
Inconsistent Enforcement. The Fire Services Act of BC and the Fire Code Administration Regulation do state that the BC Fire Commissioner and the Local Assistants to the Fire Commissioner (LAFC’s) are responsible for the enforcement of the BC Fire Code. By extension local municipalities have Fire Prevention Officers who conduct inspections of buildings and businesses in their local areas. While we appreciate their hard work on behalf of both the public and the Firefighters themselves, who regularly put themselves in harms way for the benefit of the community they serve, they are not Service Technicians. They are inspectors on behalf of the local Fire Department so their inspections may not review every detail in the building. And contrary to popular belief, they are not BCFC experts and some have admitted this. In other words, FPO’s may not necessarily be providing building owners accurate information or complete information on what is required of them as regards the BCFC. As a result, enforcement varies from community to community and FPO’s may not enforce everything in the BCFC. For instance, not all municipalities enforce monthly testing of a fire alarm system, despite it being a clear requirement in the Fire Code at BCFC 184.108.40.206 and in the CAN/ULC-S536 code documents. So this means that monthly testing is a legal requirement since both documents are adopted as law in the province of British Columbia. But the lack of enforcement does not negate the legal requirement to building owners as the Code clearly states that it is the responsibility of the building owners to carry out the provisions of the code. Using our illustration earlier of driving, just because a police officer does not enforce or even inform a driver of a speed limit, it does not absolve the driver of the responsibility to drive the speed limit. He would still be held responsible for adhering to the legal limit, and could be held liable if it could be proven otherwise.
Therefore this lack of consistent enforcement throughout the province has also contributed to misinformation and understanding of what is required of business owners in the Province of BC.
Cost, clear regulations, qualified technicians, and inconsistent enforcement are some of the major contributing factors to what some are calling an “unregulated and unmonitored industry.” As a result, British Columbians are at greater risk to the threat of fire than should be accepted.
It is not the intention of this article to demean or to downplay the efforts of any individuals, business or associations currently working in the industry who have demonstrated clear professionalism and due diligence toward their clients or communities. Nor to say that perfect adherence to the BCFC is required. But it is to highlight that there is not a clearly defined Fire Protection industry supported by the Government Of British Columbia and by discussing a few of the issues stated above, we can become aware of the problem. Once we see the issue, then we can begin addressing the problem. If we do, we will all benefit from a safer province and reducing the risk of fire.