How is apathy killing the fire protection industry?
Now in this segment, I'm talking about something I've experienced personally, but I think it's an issue and kind of the central issue that is plaguing our industry today.
Now I wanna say that if you're watching this video, you are not the issue. I can unequivocally say that you are not the issue. Just by definition, if you're watching this video, that means you care about learning. You care about fire protection, you're trying to improve your own processes, your own knowledge, your own skillset. You care about fire protection. You wouldn't have paid for this platform. You wouldn't be watching this video if you didn't care about fire protection. So, I just wanna be abundantly clear here, you are not the issue.
I think one of the issues that we face as an industry, again, if not the central issue, is that there are too many stakeholders who just don't care about fire protection.
What does apathy mean? Well, it's a lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern. That's by definition. And I feel like apathy is plaguing the fire protection industry.
When people don't care about fire protection, codes get side stepped and areas that challenges that need for fire protection help, they don't get it. And the end result is that contractors are too often put into very difficult situations that they shouldn't be in the first place.
We're creating situations where contractors are having to make decisions on major cost impacts, things that affect their bottom line, affect the job, affect the owner. That can be difficult decisions that they shouldn't have to make.
Well, what am I talking about? We're talking about building owners and architects, right? Well, no, not really. Building owners and architects are not expected to be the experts in fire protection. That's us, that's consultants. That's contractors, that's plan reviewers, that's insurance carriers. It's all of us.
We are the ones that are charged with the responsibility of thinking about fire protection. We're the ones that are challenged with carrying the knowledge and carrying the torch and caring about fire protection.
But what happens way too often is that we have what I'll call consultants, who quote unquote, do fire protection, but they don't care. They don't care to learn. They don't care to improve, and they don't care to actually address fire protection challenges.
Oftentimes this comes about with engineers who prioritize other disciplines, whether it's mechanical or electrical or plumbing, or whatever other discipline. And the challenge is not that they can't do both. The challenge is that they prioritize their other discipline over everything else. When they go get continuing education, what do they get it in? They get it in their primary discipline. When they go and meet and chat with colleagues, what do they do that in? They do that in their other discipline. When they go to network, who do they do that with? They do that with people in their other discipline.
It's just too often that fire protection's treated like a hobby that's just kind of lumped in with these other building systems. And the reality is our industry has changed a whole lot. We can't just continue to operate like we did 30 years ago or 40 years ago or 50 years ago. There was a period of time when one engineer could handle all the building systems within a whole building, electrical, mechanical, fire protection, structural, the whole works.
You could have a true architectural engineer who understood fundamentally all the building systems and could do design or consulting for a complete building, covering all of those systems and doing a pretty good job with it. But the reality today is each of those disciplines has grown so much more complex than it used to be.
In my opinion, it isn't reasonable to expect one person to be a master in all these disciplines. The public perception though, is that fire protection is very straightforward. It's very basic and it's easy. Compared to some other things, maybe parts of fire protection are more simple or are more basic or are more streamlined because of our codes. But that doesn't mean we treat it like we don't care.
I get asked every now and then from people who aren't in fire protection, “Well, Joe, do you think you'll always do fire protection?,” and they mean it, I guess, maybe, maybe not. I think they mean it well intentioned and that they think, “Well, you're doing well here, maybe you'll consider going into plumbing or technology systems or low voltage or consider doing some electrical. Maybe they think that success in one area, maybe fosters success in other areas. But the underlying assumption is that what I'm doing in the field that I'm in is so basic that I can just master that and then take on something else and it's not.
People spend entire careers in this industry just in special hazards, or just in structural fire protection, or just in fire alarm, or just sprinklers, or just smoke control, or just performance-based fire protection, or just egress, or just ADA, or just healthcare, or just facility maintenance, or just insurance, and loss prevention, or just plan review. Entire careers in just those areas.
And any one of those is just one small segment of what the fire protection industry is. One of the wraps that fire protection engineers tend to get is that just because they are a PE that doesn't mean they know anything about one particular topic.
As an example, we hear well just because someone’s a PE doesn't mean they know anything about sprinklers. Well, no, it doesn't. The PE exam encompasses all the disciplines that are under the fire protection umbrella. And there's a lot of them and people spend entire careers just in one silo.
So, if our industry has that much depth, then can we really say that somebody who doesn't even do anything related to fire protection, like mechanical or electrical or plumbing who are doing those other things and focusing on those other disciplines, can we really say that they can just kind of lump in fire protection with everything else that they do? Well, they can, and people do, but it's not a priority.
In my experience, this is where we get this rising issue of apathetic consultants who just don't care about fire protection. That's not to say, again, that's not to say that every person that does mechanical and fire protection does a bad job or doesn't care about fire protection. But what I can say is where I see this issue, this is what's happening and this is where it's coming from.
I once had a structural engineer call me up and say that he's ready to retire. And his buddy told him that if you just pass a Fire Protection Engineer exam, he'd make a guaranteed six figures and he didn't really have to do anything.
My first response was, “Okay, what's your question?” His question was, “Well, is that true?” And I said, “Well, passing the PE itself is no small feat. There's a lot of depth there. And if your background's not in fire protection, chances are it's gonna be a very difficult exam to pass. And he said, “Oh, no, no, no, no. I've done structural fire protection. I've looked at your book. I spent 15 minutes on NFPA 13. I got this Hydraulic? It's a breeze. It's nothing compared to the calculations I do. I'm not concerned about passing the PE. I just wanna know, is there money on the backside?”
And aside from like a whole assortment of issues that I had with the conversation, the underlying root is this belief that fire protection's super basic, it's super easy, and it can all just be lumped in and thrown together. And that attitude happens. People actually do that. And the result is terrible fire protection practices. It's the people who are not invested in improving their processes, understanding what's going on that are specifying or reviewing things that are not right.
Okay, Joe, you're being dramatic. No, I'm not. I'm talking about specifications that have not been updated in 30 years where contractors have to choose between sprinklers by Central, Gem, or Star. And I think, “Oh, come on, Joe. The contractor's gonna know those are all out of date and they'll just use the current vendor, and we'll all move on.
Yeah, that's fine. But those same specifications call out for schedule 40 exclusively on the project. Well, do you have to bid with schedule 40? Just because one part of the spec is completely outdated, does that mean the consultants are now not serious about other parts of the spec?
I've even had contractors say, well, the specifications say standard weight, what standard weight? We talked about standard weight 30 or 40 years ago when there was a standard weight. Well, what's standard weight now? Is schedule 10 standard weight? I consider it standard. It's what I use on all my mains on all my projects unless somebody schedules 40. Well, what is standard? I use schedule 10 on all my projects now. Is that standard?
ENGINEERS DEFERRING EVERYTHING
Another example. Engineers who defer everything to a contractor and you say, okay, well, we defer things to a contractor. No, I'm talking about everything like design criteria or commodity classification or occupancy hazard classification or water supply information, or whether entire systems are even required like standpipes or whether a dry system's required for a porte-cochere.
So, we're not so much concerned about deferring some things to a contractor just about everybody does that in some fashion. But deferring everything to a contractor, even the very big picture things like design criteria or storage requirements, or whether systems are required. That's a no-go. That puts the contractor in a very difficult position in some cases.
FIVE STORY BUILDINGS
Okay, Joe. Deferring and bad specs, that's really not that big of a deal. Well, I could disagree with you there, but going along those lines, things like NFPA 13D systems specified for five story buildings. I've seen it. I've seen consultants put that on there. CPVC specified for storage warehouses, where they have high pile, plastic storage.
Okay, Joe. CPVC, yeah, it's in the spec, but they just forgot to cut it out. Yeah. But those specs also call out for things like fire pumps, types of fire pumps, generators, automatic standpipe. If CPVC is in the spec and automatic standpipes are in the spec, do both actually apply?
We know CPVC is wrong, but do we know automatic standpipes are wrong? How is the contractor supposed to bid that? And what if in some rare cases, the specs are followed and a non-code compliant install goes through? What if it gets installed and doesn't get caught later on?
Well, now we're getting major issues with our fire protection design and installation where it could have been cleaned up and done correct from the beginning.
40 FEET UNDER
Okay, Joe, but the onus is on the contractor anyways. We tell the contractor they're responsible for their own design. What about those scenarios? Well, I've run into scenarios where the engineer will run 40 feet underneath the building before they stub up into the building.
Those engineers, instead of helping coordinate space on the outside of a building and getting a code compliant, install where a riser is against the exterior of the building and our undergrounds only allowed to be 10 feet or less underneath the building. Instead of doing that and coordinating upfront, they're requiring the contractor to run that far underneath the building.
Okay, Joe, but couldn't you put a prebid RFI in and clarify that before bid and have the consultant clean that up. Well, I've had consultants that are adamant. They're okay with it running that far underground, that's what's gonna be done.
Well, the contractor is still responsible for the design. The contractor’s engineer has to sign and seal their own plans, but it's clearly not correct by code. What happens when that 40 feet goes underneath the building and one of the fittings leaks, or we get some kind of break under there? Now we're tearing apart a brand-new building because a consultant decided that they were above code.
These are not scenarios where we have specialty fire protection consultants or fire protection engineers who care about what they're doing. This is really not that dynamic at play. The people that care or the specialty consultants or the experts that care about this industry, they're not doing that kind of stuff. Where it's coming from is from engineers who don't care about fire protection and don't address fire protection challenges on a project and don't think it's that big of a deal.
Well, we've got code for a reason. We've got standards for a reason. There's a lot of people way smarter than myself that come up with this stuff. And there's good reasons behind it. Ignoring it all together? It's dangerous. Not only is it a liability, but it’s dangerous. We're trying to do good fire protection practice. And when we get people who are apathetic about fire protection as a whole, it creates really bad situations. In some cases, dangerous situations.
IGNORING FIRE PROTECTION
Now I'm not talking about mistakes. We all make mistakes. I’ve made mistakes. They're painful. We correct them. And we move on. I'm talking about consultants who holistically ignore fire protection altogether. They say, oh, well, that's the contractor's problem or that's a contractor issue, or it's a deferred submittal, let the contractor decide. But those are the types of projects where we're missing big picture things.
We spend so much time in the fire protection world talking about things like single point design densities, or plastic pallets. Are they reinforced or unreinforced? Or what's the clearance for a core drill through a CMU wall?
Those are great. All those things are great discussions. We wanna help foster that knowledge sharing and grow and be more knowledgeable in what we do so we build safer buildings. But then aside from that, there's this whole contingent of the industry that is missing huge, big picture things. And that's an issue, that is a major miss in my mind.
WHY DO THEY DO THIS?
Why, why do they do this? The most common refrain I hear from consultants of that perspective is that, well, the architect isn't willing to pay for it. So, we're not gonna do it. or we don't need to do it. And really either of those cases, it's just not true.
If a consultant can help clarify parts of the bid, or if they can address and answer major fire protection challenges early in a job, then they're providing value to do the job. And people are willing to pay for that.
I've heard of stigma about GCs. I've heard a stigma about general contractors being especially tight and not caring about these kinds of things. Well, I've worked with general contractors who will willingly pay for extra fire protection engineer trips and extra involvement and extra scope from the fire protection engineer so that their jobs run smoothly and they can stay on schedule. They're paying extra money because they see the value in having that involvement early on and throughout a project.
I also see architects, for example, when they willingly pay for upfront design help to coordinate challenging or high visibility areas. When you get into airports or museums or stadiums or high finish areas, there's a real value to coordinating with somebody in a job before a contractor ever steps on board. If you're able to add value with what you do, people are willing to pay for it.
And that has to be true because we have this whole contingent of fire protection engineering consultants. Small consultants, big consultants, there's this whole genre of specialty consultants that exists cause people are willing to pay for that value. So, I just don't buy the argument that architects aren't willing to pay for it.
And my personal opinion, if they're having that conversation and they're not willing to pay for fire protection, then don't do anything. Exclude it from your scope of work. If you're a consultant, you're doing MEP work, just exclude fire protection altogether. Don't address it. Don't coordinate it. Don't show anything. Don't write a spec on fire protection, say “Hey, if you don't want to pay for it, that's fine. Hire somebody else to do it, or just don't get anything.”
Because the reality is, if you don't say anything whatsoever, that's easier for a contractor to bid. A contractor will know, okay, you're getting a code minimum system. Got it. I know how to handle that. I've got people on my team. We can figure that out. But if you're only half baking your scope, if you're only half baking fire protection, you're putting some ideas on there, but you're having such minimal involvement. You're deferring all these things to the contractor and you're throwing in just side topics like running underground all the way underneath your building or creating big code issues, then you're actually obstructing the process.
HOW DOES THIS IMPACT JOBS?
How does that impact jobs? Well, it makes jobs way more difficult to bid. Ask your local contractors when they get things like that, when they get specs that don't match or they get non-code compliant, defer everything but incorporate these things that violate code. Ask them how difficult it is to bid a job so they're more difficult to bid.
The consultant also actually gets in the way of having a smooth job rather than having things coordinated upfront, addressing the major fire protection challenges early on when you can save costs and have things run smoothly through the process.
You lose the ability to have a project flow smoothly without major roadblocks changes. When consultants are very apathetic about fire protection, it adds additional time, effort, and cost to a job. When red flags come up and challenges come up late in a project, that's costly. It affects everybody. It involves time to fix. It involves cost to fix. It's difficult.
I know contractors who will deliberately bid higher for projects when a certain consultant is on the job. Why? Because the engineer is obstructing code rather than understanding it. They're obstructing the challenges rather than clarifying them.
Again, these are deliberately higher bids. I also know of contractors who just flat out refuse to bid projects that are done with a certain consultant. Now, if I were a building owner and I knew that about my consultant, I would be furious instead of streamlining the project or coordinating key requirements early or bringing clarity to the job to reduce overall cost, reduce challenges, reduce stress. Their presence alone is going to obstruct code and raise costs.
If I'm a building owner and I'm already paying a consultant and then their involvement is increasing my overall cost or reducing competitive bidding because contractors won't even bid the job, that's terrible. I would be so mad. But that's what happens when you have consultants who are apathetic about fire protection altogether.
CAN THIS BE FIXED?
Can this be fixed? Yes. It definitely can be fixed. If the consultant wants to do fire protection better, there's ways to do it. If they still want to do the work and they want to grow ,well, hire or partner with somebody who can review your work.
That doesn't have to be expensive. You can hire an independent, small FPE shop to provide feedback and insight on key issues. That can save a whole lot of headache and help train up your staff as well. If you don't want to do the work, you wanna exclude it. If you don't want to do the work, well, you could subcontract, or you could just partner with a consulting firm that does do that type of work.
But if you keep coming back to, well, we don't get paid for it. Okay, then don't do anything. No fire protection is way better than a set of half-baked plans and specifications. Ask your local contractors. It's way easier to design and install and bid a job. If there's nothing for fire protection, then if there's a half-baked, incorrect or conflicting set of plants and documents.
So, what do good consultants do? Well, they address key challenges early. They clarify. They make the project clear and biddable for contractors. They help the schedule. They help the contractors, bid apples to apples and help avoid major issues and major cost changes later in the project.
Well, Joe, that's because everybody in your area marries their cousins and that's not true. We marry our second cousins and two, it's not just a regional issue. I've studied on the East Coast. I've studied with people nationally. I've traveled and worked nationally. I speak to people every day around the US and around the world. In my mind, this is the central issue that's plaguing our industry today. It promotes horrible situations, bad practices and frustrates owners to no end.
If you're not talking about me and I'm not part of the issue, then why is this relevant to me? Well, if that's the world that we're competing with, then we need you to be extremely effective in what you do. If there's no difference between a group that just is apathetic to fire protection overall, and somebody who does care, if that Delta is so small, well, people aren't gonna pay for it. Then we're in direct competition between those two groups.
But if instead, if there's a huge canyon between those who are apathetic about fire protection and those who care about fire protection, then one, people will pay for the difference. But two, is that customers will stop accepting subpar work.
If you're so effective at what you're doing that you're tangibly providing much higher value to your clients, they won't accept apathy anymore. But if the difference between you and somebody who's apathetic about fire protection is a canyon and a world of difference; if you really to separate yourself and distinguish yourself from those groups, not only will you see a whole lot more value in what you do and your clients will see more value in what you do, but people out in the world who are receiving that better treatment, they just won't accept apathy anymore.
So, we need you to be highly effective at what you're doing because it matters. It matters to have quality work and you being effective in your role matters because that's what's gonna help us move this industry forward.
I'm Joe Meyer, this is MeyerFire University.
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