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Initiatives for Improving Fire Prevention Bureau Customer Service

As the overall economy continues to struggle and our department budgets are under increased pressure, it may seem a very strange time to discuss increasing your customer service within the fire prevention bureau rather than decreasing it.

However, many customer service initiatives not only serve the direct role of providing improved services to our external customers but also serve the dual function of streamlining the internal operations and allowing our staff added time to focus on the issues that provide the greatest risk-management return.

The initiatives listed here will go a long way to making the regulatory dealings with your agency a brighter one for both your internal and external customers.

Post your permitting process, policies and local ordinance requirements on your website - Regardless of what we AHJs may sometimes think, a vast majority of contractors do want to be code compliant. Code-compliant designs receive permitting approval quicker and result in a reduced number of field changes that delay the job and add to increased costs.

Posting the permitting thresholds, process, referenced code editions and specific jurisdictional requirements on your website allows contractors to quickly ascertain what it takes to get a permit and to ensure their designs are code compliant.

Provide an expedited plan-review option for fire-sprinkler and fire-alarm plans - Time is money in the contracting business. On more and more jobs, the subcontractors are under extreme time constraints and may not be brought on until the last minute.

This seems even more common for fire-protection work. Frequently, fire-protection contractors are put in a position where it’s cheaper to pay the double fee for work without a permit than to get behind on the job. Many of them would willingly pay a much higher plan-review fee for the added service of an expedited plan-review option.

Eliminate office plans review on small fire-sprinkler/fire-alarm additions and relocations - On small jobs, the cost of permitting and plans can quickly exceed the cost of the work. If the local jurisdiction requires plans for five-head relocation, it may be best to just do the work and take your chances. Any needed corrections can occur in the field at the time of final inspection.

Institute a simplified permit and inspection process for fire-sprinkler systems for one-and two-family dwellings - Residential homes are constructed in a manner different from the typical commercial jobs that fire service AHJs are typically accustomed to. Building departments recognize this fact and some even turn around single-family plans in less than two days. Forcing a fire-sprinkler subcontractor to wait two to three weeks for a permit can ripple through each of the trades and easily affect the CO.

Thinking about new options, what about certifying some of your plumbing or building inspectors as 13D inspectors and let them inspect the 13D sprinkler system? They’re already out on the job site.

Conduct complete plans review and inspections the first time around - Contractors frequently have to deal with AHJs who begin to conduct an inspection, find two or three problems and then stop the inspection. The same situation can and does occur in the plans review process. Each of these incomplete inspections or incomplete plans reviews can result in significant permitting delays, additional costs to the contractor and delays in opening to the developer.

Allow master filing of fire-alarm and sprinkler permits on typical buildings - Most building departments allow a master filed set of plans for typical buildings that will be constructed repeatedly with no or minimal design changes. There is no reason that the fire-protection systems should also not be allowed to master file their shop drawing plans for these types of projects.

This doesn’t mean that separate permits aren’t issued to control the scope of the permitted work and track inspection, but separate plan submittals should not be required. Obviously, master filing significantly reduces the permitting time for duplicate buildings.

Allow fire-sprinkler and fire-alarm contractors to receive early-start permits - Many building departments are now issuing early-start permits for an added fee. Basically, these permits allow a contractor and their subs to start demolition and begin the interior build-out up to the point of the first inspection.

These permits are issued over the counter without plans at the contractor’s sole risk while the plans are being reviewed. Allowing the fire-sprinkler and fire-alarm contractors to being early-start work along with the mechanical, electrical and plumbing contractors can greatly expedite the completion of a job.

Tony Apfelbeck, CFPS, CBO, is the fire marshal/building official for the city of Altamonte Springs, Fla.

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