CODE & STANDARD REFERENCES
Who is Responsible for Hazard Classifications?
I have to start with I am not a Lawyer, so I certainly don’t want to give the illusion of providing sound legal advice. Also, while we’re gaining ground and recognition as a discipline worldwide, much of this discussion on licensure and engineering responsibility is specific to the United States and how we are set up by law within the United States. Some of these same concepts apply to different countries but are enforced by different governments and different groups, so I still think it’s a relevant discussion.
Again, I’m not a lawyer, I’m a licensed Professional Engineer in the US, so my angle here and what I’m sharing is from that perspective.
Let’s start with diving into a position statement that best addresses just this question.
In 2008, and again updated in 2020, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers developed a Position Statement that identifies and distinguishes the role of a Professional Engineer and an Engineering Design Technician. While a position statement may sound trivial not necessarily grounded in reality, this statement directly addresses the issue that we’re talking about today.
What is considered to be engineering practice? What is an Engineering Technician vs an Engineer, both in role and responsibility? What can a Professional Engineer “delegate” to a Technician?
If it sounds like it’s just a position from one group of professionals with an agenda – consider that this position statement was developed with and endorsed by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), the Automatic Fire Alarm Association (AFAA), The American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA), the American Society of Certified Engineering Technicians ASCET), the Fire Suppression Systems Association (FSSA), the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA), the National Institute for Certification in Engineering (NICET), and the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE).
This document involved a lot of input and endorsement from virtually every major organization related to this topic in North America.
In it, as it relates to fire suppression, the Professional Engineer is identified as being responsible for selecting system types, classifying hazards, storage arrangements, commodities to be protected, and establishing the design criteria. These are only some of the responsibilities of the Engineer.
The Design Technician is not responsible for establishing or classifying the hazards. The Technician’s responsibility is to develop installation drawings and submittals based upon what was established by the Engineer.
Yeah that all sounds nice Joe – but why? Why can’t my NICET IV Technician determine hazard classifications? What does a PE have that my technician can’t cover? What if the Technician knows far more about sprinklers than the Engineer?
First, both Engineers and Engineering Technicians may be overstepping their roles if they participate in aspects of the design which they are not qualified to do, by education, experience or credentials. That’s for both parties, and is outlined in the position paper.
We should not practice outside of our areas of expertise.
Also, as the paper also details, licensure and certification alone are not sufficient to ensure quality. They’re not. I can attest to this as I’m sure you can too.
Professional organizations develop their own codes of ethics and professional responsibility in order to address quality; with consequences for violators.
What is a PE?
A PE, as defined by NCEES, is a licensed Professional Engineer. The PE is required to demonstrate sound knowledge and judgment to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public from the impacts of fire.
The Fire Protection PE Exam is a comprehensive exam covering many aspects of fire protection. Fire suppression, as an example, makes up only a small fraction of that exam. The Engineer is tested for a comprehensive understanding of fire protection.
Licensure, in the United States for example, happens on the state level. Licensure does many things, two of which include permitting an Engineer to practice in the area and also binding that Engineer as a Responsible Party. The Engineer, by that licensure, is bound to the Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility that is established by that state.
Personally – I think a lot of people miss this point.
KNOWLEDGE & QUALIFICATIONS
In the sprinkler world I hear a lot of “well so and so has the stamp but he doesn’t know anything about sprinklers” or that “so and so knows way more than the PE about sprinklers”. And that can certainly be true. However, the person who has that stamp, or has that PE License for the state (in other words), is bound to a Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility for that state. There are professional, ethical, and legal responsibilities which that individual is carrying when they become licensed in that state.
So why can’t a NICET IV just design the system?
Well, depending on the state, a NICET IV may actually be allowed to design the system by law.
However, the NICET technician is not necessarily bound to the same Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility that the Engineer is, even in that same jurisdiction.
Again, I’m not a lawyer, but I am familiar with the responsibilities that a Professional Engineer has to carry with them. The Professional, Ethical, and Legal responsibilities. Many states and many organizations look specifically at hazard and commodity classifications for fire sprinkler systems as “the practice of engineering”. If you need evidence of that, look at this SFPE Position Paper, or the NCEES Position Statement 22, or articles throughout professional engineering and contractor magazines. It is often considered to be the “practice of engineering”.
I know some Fire Protection Engineers who will not provide advice or an opinion, even just about a hazard or commodity classification, if the project is in a state where they are not licensed. This is even just an email or a letter or a quick-look at a job. They won’t provide advice because they understand that hazard classifications can be considered engineering practice and they are only permitted to practice that expertise in the states which they are licensed. It’s a big deal – a serious thing.
WHY CAN’T A TECHNICIAN JUST DESIGN THE SYSTEM?
So why can’t a NICET technician just design the system? Why can’t they just make the determination for a hazard classification?
Perhaps they can – and in many cases it may be spot on – but they’re not bound by the ethical and legal responsibility which a Professional Engineer is. By practicing in that way, they may be working outside their qualified areas and may not be protected by their liability insurance or state law.
That’s the ethical and responsible charge that’s governed by the state.
But what about real world? Why does it matter if my NICET technician describes an area as Light Hazard or not? Does a PE really need to do that?
First – many hazard classifications are not controversial. In our last video we talked about why the hazard classification specifically is important. It establishes many of the requirements around the design of the system and ultimately has a huge role in whether a fire sprinkler system can suppress a fire or not. So it’s important.
But if we have a typical elementary classroom and we want to label that as “Light Hazard”, we’ll that’s not going to be that big of a deal.
But what happens when we get into areas that are more gray? What happens if a space, or the description of a space, could fall into a number of different categories, like a “lab”, for instance? What if a space is just labeled as a “warehouse”?
WHY NOT JUST “DEFER” IT?
Why can’t we leave that to a technician to address later on?
Usually, the design technician works as a part of the contractor’s team. They may be independent or in-house, but either way, they’re working for the contractor. In an open-bid job, these areas that are not well defined can cause major issues for bidding.
Many contractors, right or wrong, feel compelled to bid something as aggressive or as lenient as they can in order to win the job. I’ve heard this many times. The refrain goes something like “well if I don’t bid it with a very lenient interpretation here, then someone else will. And that someone else will win the job.” Have you heard that before?
When a project goes to bid, or even if it’s just sent to one contractor for pricing, and we have not defined these major things like hazard classifications, then we’ve already set up the project for failure.
“Well, Joe, the contractor is still held liable for the job. They shouldn’t cut a corner – they’re expected to be professional and act ethically.”
Yes, that is true, but that doesn’t mean the contractor has to take the most conservative interpretation of a gray area either. A contractor, in a bid, can clearly state their assumptions in their bid, or exclude specific things in their bid. In my experience, those assumptions and exclusions are almost never reviewed by the original designer or consultant. Almost never.
So what happens? What happens when that lab is actually Extra Hazard or the contractor finds out later that the “warehouse” is not OH2 but instead is high-piled plastics? They get awarded a very large change order, and the owner, who thinks they already paid for something, now has to shell out extra money that they weren’t planning to pay for.
So the contractor is just some greedy money-grabbing thief? No. We’ve set them up for failure from the beginning. As a consultant, we’re the ones making the rules for the game, and we gave them an awful game. Who’s fault is that?
If you’re a consultant, do not, do not defer what is an engineer’s responsibility to a contractor especially with major decisions like hazard and commodity classifications. The contractor should not be tasked with having to figure that out before a bid before they’re even awarded a job. It’s not their professional responsibility, for one, and two – they do not have access to the information that you do as a consultant.
POSSIBLE CONFLICT OF INTEREST?
Also, if every major decision is put on the shoulders of the contractor, who by design is supposed to bid as competitively as possible. Is there not a conflict of interest here?
Let’s say a sprinkler contractor is awarded a job that they hard bid. They took a lenient, but perhaps plausible, approach to a hazard classification. Well, their revenue is now fixed in place. On one hand, taking a lenient approach to the most liberal interpretation of a hazard classification would be a way to save on pipe size, on install time, material costs… basically more profit on the job. On the other hand, the most lenient approach might compromise the system to the extent that it cannot suppress a fire the way code intended. Is that exactly the definition of a conflict of interest?
A situation in which a person is in a position to derive personal benefit (profit) from decisions made in their official capacity (hazard classification).
Why are contractors put in this situation to begin with? I would argue that they should not be, perhaps ever.
OWNER’S INTESTS AND INFORMATION
What if the use of a space is different than what the name implies?
What if a space just says “welcome lobby”, when in fact it’s going to house a large operational combine harvester? The consultant who is working on behalf of the building owner has the ability and access to ask questions and help determine these things upfront.
Joe that’s crazy. That doesn’t happen. It did to me. This exact scenario, when working with a building owner, happened on one of my projects. We stepped up the occupancy hazard classification to account for it. That was all tidied up before bid. That same project, the owner also came back and said they wanted the ability to use grills underneath their overhangs – overhangs that otherwise wouldn’t have needed sprinklers. Two big takeaways in working with an owner that were put right on the contract documents. Provide sprinklers below these overhangs – design this area with a stepped-up occupancy hazard classification.
Would a sprinkler contractor have known that if we never told them in the documents? Absolutely not! Why would you guess that a large combine would be in a visitors lobby?
Yeah Joe that’s just because you work in rural flyover country, that kind of stuff doesn’t happen here. It happens everywhere. What about warehouses? The consultant can ask and work with a building owner about their specific commodities, their specific rack layouts, and their specific storage arrangements. They can figure out what the appropriate protection criteria is with that owner before things ever go to bid. That’s the consultant’s responsibility anyways to work in good faith for the building owner, but it’s also their responsible charge as a Professional Engineer. They have access to that information. Contractors who are bidding a job just don’t.
Now for the contractor’s perspective; just because this happens, doesn’t mean you have to accept it.
Leaving wide-open gray areas on a project that is getting priced out is bad. It can set up a lot of misunderstanding and make for very difficult conversations later on between the building owner, the general contractor, and the subcontractor. What happens if you win a bid but don’t specify, and the jurisdiction or the consultant requires something, rightfully, and you get stuck with the cost increases? That’s bad for business.
What happens even if you get paid on change orders? It doesn’t make the owner happy, and by extension doesn’t put you in a great light with your client, the GC. It’s not great for business either, even if you’re made whole by the extra income.
For the contractors I’ve worked with in these scenarios – when there is a gray area or something that could be interpreted multiple ways – I strongly encourage them to get decisions in writing. Pre-bid RFIs are your friend here. Get big decisions clarified before things go to bid. If you don’t get an answer, ok, but its documented that you asked AND you now have reason to limit or exclude certain aspects of your price. You can state the specific assumptions you have to make during the bid process that were not answered in the documents and not answered in the pre-bid RFIs. Protect yourself, and hold consultants to their responsibilities too. That works both ways.
INTERPRETATIONS OF “HAZARD CLASSIFICATIONS”
NFSA’s Layout Book, which is a great read and I was thrilled to be a small part of the team that put the third edition together, has this to say about the decision of a hazard classification:
“in most jurisdictions, the determination of hazard classification is considered the role of the professional engineer, because it requires the use of engineering judgement and a relationship with the owner of the building.”
Decisions on a hazard classification also limits how the owner can use a space. So it’s a two-way street; the engineer needs to find an appropriate categorization that the owner is OK to live with over the life of the building.
You’ll see similar language on different organization’s ask-the-expert programs, where classification of hazards is not universally addressed because it’s considered to be engineering practice by many states.
Some state requirements go further beyond just being licensed to practice engineering. Illinois, for example, has a Fire Sprinkler Contracting License Act that mandates a professional engineer take at least some part in the design process, even as simple as providing a one-page scope of work letter before a contractor begins their work. They refer to this as a “technical submission” in the act legislation.
Florida is another example, Statute 61G15-32, where they have a list of essential components that need to be provided by a licensed professional engineer on their documents, including the occupancy hazard classification.
So even though many states require the practice of engineering to be by a licensed Professional Engineer, some are very specific with separate legislation that still must be done by a licensed Professional Engineer.
Engineers need to carry Professional Liability Insurance. This insurance helps compensate for errors and omissions on the part of the Professional Engineer. Engineering Technicians also carry Insurance for Errors & Omissions. One aspect of practicing engineering here is to be cognizant of what is in that insurance coverage. For an Engineer, that Liability Insurance will identify the practice of engineering as a central part of the coverage. I’m not as familiar with the insurance for technicians, but just be cognizant that they may not extend coverage for decisions that are deemed to be engineering practice. Again, potentially working outside of a qualified area could open up someone to personally liability they don’t need to be taking on.
So who is responsible for designating the sprinkler occupancy hazard classifications?
Everything here points to one common answer; it’s the licensed Professional Engineer. The Engineer needs to be the responsible party that determines sprinkler occupancy hazard classifications. Why? The Engineer is uniquely bound legally and ethically to make responsible decisions on behalf of public welfare and safety.
What about when an engineer isn’t involved in a project? What about work in an area or a state that doesn’t require engineer involvement? That’s a tougher question to answer – and perhaps the best path is to seek out an attorney and ask your insurance provider how to approach those situations. Perhaps you have a Professional Engineer internally that can make those designations. Perhaps you have access to hire one for that type of work. But as an engineering technician, you don’t need to assume the responsibility that you don’t have to.
That’s it for this one.
I’m Joe Meyer, this is MeyerFire University.
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