Where to Turn When You're "The Fire Guy"?
When I first started in the industry I figured every company had access to the senior-level mentors – the knowledge hubs – the experts – the people that could cite code verses faster than they could show you their sprinkler tattoos.
Turns out, that situation was more rare than I would have thought.
Many organizations – contractors, consultants, building departments, plan reviewers, inspection teams – many do not have a wealth of highly-experienced, highly-trained expertise at their fingertips.
If your office does, consider yourself lucky.
There are many small businesses throughout the world with some level of fire protection involvement. With the retirement of many Baby Boomers in the US, we are transitioning to a new era beyond having a generation that held so many answers for many years.
The reality is – there are many, many organizations where the responsibility of fire protection falls to someone who (shriek!) doesn’t have any sprinkler tattoos.
Well, what happens when you’re that person?
What happens when you're the someone who is supposed to have all the fire protection answers?
What happens if you’re the “fire protection guy”?
[Important note: I mean the term ‘guy’ in a Midwestern-sense, not as a male in gender but as a human. We don’t say “hey y’all” here, nor do we properly say “you all”, rather, it’s usually said as “you guys”. I know. We is what we is. Can't predict the future but I hope this will still age well.]
Well, what happens then?
WHEN THE BUCK STOPS WITH YOU
This was a big fear of mine when I moved from a large company with many senior-level experts and many resources to a smaller company where I was to be in charge of fire protection issues. I was the end of the line – where the proverbial “buck stopped” as things related to fire protection.
My big fear was that without someone else with better technical knowledge, I’d be exposed, the company would be exposed, I'd miss things, or do poor quality work.
It’s hard to "know what you don’t know". I’ve certainly learned lessons in avoidable ways.
But what I found after the move, without having a direct “fire protection” mentor, is that getting answers could still happen. Help could be made up in a few ways where I could still learn and still maintain a relatively high standard of work.
What I had to learn was where to turn when I was the "end of the road."
I had to figure out where to go to conjure an answer for something I didn’t previously know.
Simply "guessing," “shooting from the hip," or doing what I “think” is right just doesn’t cut it. I do not, and cannot, instinctively know the industry standard of what has been debated and adopted into code over a hundred years. I can’t “predict” what I think code will say. When I have, I've been wrong.
When I have a new or unique situation – a question – a challenge – an ask – for something that I haven’t encountered before – here’s my secret list of go-tos to find that best path forward.
For those in large offices, large companies, or who are working under experienced staff – much of this might be trivial. But for those of us in small teams or small organizations, some of these resources can offer major lifelines to collect answers that we didn’t know where already available.
#1 DEVELOP YOUR OWN CODE PATH
We talk about this a lot on the University platform; and that is developing a formal code path.
Codes and standards have a hierarchy. Most begin with a title, chapters, sections and then subsections.
It’s far too easy and way too common nowadays to open a code and click “CTRL+F” until we find a sentence that fits the narrative we wanted.
CTRL+F is a good method to jump to a term, but a poor way of gaining context.
Instead, when we’re trying to find a solution to a particular problem, try starting from the very beginning and document every step along your path. Make a trail. Leave yourself bread crumbs behind you so that if you have to walk backwards, or walk this path again, that it’ll be easier the next time.
Well, what does a “code path” look like?
It’s a documented path, from the highest level all the way down to the answer, that charts each step along the way.
My question yesterday was what was the Fire Flow for a building (military job). I didn't know.
Here was my resulting code path, starting with the applicable standard that I knew applied (UFC 3-600-01), and working my way down to the applicable content I needed:
• UFC 3-600-01 (8 AUG 2016 WITH CHANGE 6, 6 MAY 2021)
• Chapter 9 Fire Protection Systems
• Section 9-2 FIRE FLOW FOR FACILITIES
• Section 9.2.2 Non-Sprinklered Facilities
Fire Flow must be in accordance with NFPA 1, except the following special facilities. ➾
➾ NFPA 1 (2018 EDITION)
• Chapter 18 Fire Department Access and Water Supply
• Section 18.4 Fire Flow Requirements for Buildings.
• Section 18.4.3 Modifications
• Section 22.214.171.124 Decreases in Fire Flow Requirements
Fire flow requirements shall be permitted to be decreased by the AHJ for isolated buildings
or a group of buildings in rural areas or suburban areas where the development of full fire flow
requirements is impractical as determined by the AHJ.
• Section 18.4.5 Fire Flow Requirements for Buildings
• Section 126.96.36.199 Buildings Other than One- and Two-Family Dwellings
• Section 188.8.131.52.1
The minimum fire flow and flow duration for buildings other than one- and two-family dwellings
shall be as specified in Table 184.108.40.206.1. ➾➾
➾➾ Table 220.127.116.11.1
Requires Type II-B Construction up to 22,700 sqft in size to have a
minimum Fire Flow of 1,500 gpm, at 20 psi, for 2-hours.
My simplified answer therefore was 1,500 gpm, at 20 psi, for 2-hours, unless the AHJ permits a decrease, based on NFPA 1-2018 Section 18.104.22.168.1, Table 22.214.171.124.1, and Section 126.96.36.199 with the code path above as a basis.
Now with this question some might say “well of course it’s 1,500 gpm” or “I would have just jumped right to NFPA 1”, but the reality is – if that’s the first time you’re getting that answer for yourself – how are you supposed to know where to go? Just guess NFPA 1? Why not NFPA 1142? Or the International Fire Code?
Novel situations – new questions – deserve at least an individual attempt at looking through code and charting that path. Basically - read the book and see if we can't find the answer ourselves.
SAVE YOUR WORK
With every one of these, I save them down in Microsoft Word files in a specific folder, and I can go back and reference them whenever I need. There’s probably a good 50+ in there by now.
What happens if we get a similar question, but it’s slightly different?
What about a different code edition?
Well, we can follow our same path until it’s no longer true.
Copy over, start the path and blaze the new trail.
If you want to spice up your life, consider each question you're own little 'puzzle of the day' and see what the code book kicks back out.
Life's too short not to have a little fun in your life, right?
Remember that codes have hierarchy. If there is a title to a section, that says “Combustible Concealed Spaces”, with subsections below it – chances are “noncombustible” spaces, or “nonconcealed” spaces will not apply. That’s deliberate. Citing a line of code without the context can get us into trouble (it’s gotten me into trouble).
I’ve had code paths from model codes that were similar, but with a different end result, based on a locally adopted code. Those prior documented paths were major timesavers the second and third time around.
In short, the first place I go when I don’t have an answer is to dig into the code or standard itself. Find a path, document the justification for it, and if there’s no ambiguity, then we have our answer with support behind it.
#2 ANNEXES & COMMENTARIES
I had a salesperson visit once who said the only value he really provides to his customers is reading the Annex and Commentaries of each code.
He says the extra hundred dollars for each standard he buys has made him look the part of the expert – because “hardly anyone ever reads it!”
Sometimes we hop around in codes & standards and lose context of what part of code their in – or if that code even applies in the first place.
The Annex portion of the code often has material that expands upon the body of the code with input from the codes and standards committees themselves.
Commentary can also be a huge help. But, just as a word of caution, these are sometimes (perhaps mostly) not from committee members – so they can provide help but ultimately are not as well-reviewed and approved as the Annex or the body of the code or standard itself.
#3 USE ALL THE RESOURCES YOU CAN
Back to Algebra class for a second:
If your billable rate is $60 an hour – how much time do you need to save in order to justify a $120 book?
Roughly two hours.
Yeah there’s shipping, and billable rate isn’t exactly a translation for your internal cost versus net profit and all that.
But in the big picture – if a $120 book saves you more than two hours – then it roughly paid for itself.
What if that book saves you four hours? Now you have a solid return on your investment.
What if that book saves you eight? It’s not crazy – think about time over a year or two. Tabbing, bookmarks, indexes, quick references: all of those things could save you time here and time there that adds up in the long run.
The thing is – having the book is only one part of the ask. That’s the surface-level debate that goes on inside offices – do we spend money on a color printer? Can we get larger monitors? What about that software? Do we really need more books?
Those are all part of the business decision making and limiting overall cost.
But what if you have a book and also then use the references to their full potential?
What if a textbook helped you understand an area you were previously lacking, or a topic that you’ve never covered before?
What if that book provides informal interpretations that helps you make more informed decisions?
There are many materials out there that are widely underutilized.
Two that I’ve been fortunate to work on are NFSA’s Layout Book (Layout, Detail and Calculation of Fire Sprinkler Systems 3rd Edition) and NFSA’s Expert of the Day Handbook. Those are excellent resources for someone practicing in the sprinkler field.
Within those books there are step-by-steps and literally over two-thousand answered questions related to fire sprinkler systems.
Is your question simply sitting in that book? It’s possible.
There are other books, introductory and advanced, that exist for life safety and fire alarm as well. Do some research, ask around, and see what tools you can have in your toolkit that help you be more informed and more effective at what you do.
Not just books too – but Forums and online communities (here and elsewhere) – where can you plug in and get answers from your peers.
Joe – you said the buck stops with me. Who am I supposed to ask?
There is help.
Help in a traditional sense would often come from within your own organization.
But consider those outside your walls for a second. The ICC and NFPA both have request lines where you can ask for informal, and if need be, formal interpretations on their own codes and standards.
But there’s also informal interpretations, too. On the suppression side, AFSA and NFSA both have fantastic expert references that will answer project-specific questions with informal interpretations for members. These experts have far more collective knowledge than I hope to gain in my whole career. They’re an excellent resource.
Lastly, there are Forums. Here, I started the MeyerFire Forum to provide an opportunity to have quality discussions, at a deliberate pace, with anonymity so that we all can learn. Use that as a resource in your toolkit. Ask when you need input.
SO WHEN I DON'T KNOW, WHAT DO I SAY?
The biggest fear I had when I first started was what if my client asks a question and I didn’t know the answer?
Well – here’s some news – this happens to me. Still. Like Today. And All. The. Time.
And there’s a line you need to rehearse and hold tight. That line is “I don’t know offhand, but I’ll do some research and get this for you.”
That’s it. Simple. Buy yourself time to do the legwork and point someone in the right direction. And then follow up as soon as you can with a well-documented code path.
Are they going to be upset? Are they going to be belligerent because you don’t have code memorized?
Perhaps – but that’s on them. High pressure situations or bad attitudes isn’t going to make someone suddenly know something that they don’t know.
If you want a complete cop-out answer and partial lie, then just say “it depends” without any explanation.
Just kidding – don’t do that.
I can’t stand it when “it depends” is the answer I get, when really someone doesn’t know. Just say you “don’t know offhand” – like you remembered that person's maiden name from from high school but just can’t recall it at this particular moment. It’s OK! You’re human. We still like ya.
Whether you’re the “fire protection guy” or not, more practice and more familiarity is all we can do to grow our fire protection “muscle” and become, slowly, more comfortable with what we do over time.
To get there, just be sure you’re making good use of all the resources you have available to you.
Keep up the good fight. It's good to be the "fire protection guy". Not easy, but it’s good.
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Joe Meyer, PE, is a Fire Protection Engineer out of St. Louis, Missouri who writes & develops resources for Fire Protection Professionals. See bio here: About