Fire inspection: Harrowing tales from the frontlines

They are threatened, ridiculed and confronted with some of the oddest suppression arrangements known to man; they are unsung safety heroes

This month we honor one of the overlooked and under-appreciated facets of the fire service. One who you usually don't hear much about, although it is a very important aspect of what we do.

Behold, the fire inspector.

Yes, you Mr. Fire Inspector. Armed with your tape measure and code book you can spot a Class 1 standpipe or a blocked exit a mile away. OK, I'm starting to sound like a beer commercial — I'll stop.

I served as fire marshal in a small town for about a year and a half and headed up inspections. I can honestly say I didn't like it at all. It just wasn't my thing. Fortunately there are people who enjoy the work and make a difference.

Historically minded people can readily name fires in our country's history where hundreds died. Rarely these days do you see a multi fatality in a commercial-occupancy fire. This is a direct result of building, fire and life-safety codes and enforcement by our friend the fire inspector.

It's not as exciting as riding the big red chrome machine, but the fire inspector has to take pride in the fact that by reviewing plans or chasing down an extension cord he or she is saving the lives of the public and firefighters.

Two people you're likely to meet
A police officer once told me that a major part of being a police officer is knowing how to talk to people. The same can be said for the fire inspector. Storming into a restaurant during the lunch rush and barking orders like Mike Ditka really won't get you too far.

To take it one step further, the fire inspector is also an educator. A lot of times when the inspector explains and educates a business owner on why a requirement exists, the business person might say, "Wow, I never thought about that."

However, there are the non-conformists, the anti-city government people who resist everything just because. It doesn't matter how you talk to these people.

Over the course of a career, the fire inspector will have these two conversations without fail.

  1. "We have been here 25 years and that has never happened." Clever reply: "I have never been struck by lightning, but I don't stand on golf courses waving a 20-foot aluminum pole over my head during thunderstorms."
  2. "The last guy who came didn't say anything about that." Clever reply: "Oh that was Herb, the blind guy. He retired."

Mounting concerns
Most cities adopt a fire code; there are several around. A fire code usually requires a business to have a fire extinguisher on hand. There is a minimum size (5A10BC in some places), the extinguisher has to be mounted at a certain height and have a current inspection tag. That doesn't really sound that hard.

If I didn't see one I would ask if the business had one and was always told yes. The occupant would begin looking in closets, unpacking cardboard boxes and opening cabinet doors.

I would explain that the extinguisher needs to be mounted in a conspicuous place. Most people would comply, but of course some would react as if I had asked them to purchase the Hope Diamond and to display it.

One female business owner told me flat out, "I don't need one that's why you are around." It's good to be appreciated.

What would Fritz do?
I had a few confrontations in houses of worship. Church folks like to point out the separation of church and state. I would point out the requirements of an assembly occupancy and the fire code.

I never had a problem being a bad guy at a school. If you have ever looked at the photos of the Our Lady of the Angels school fire in Chicago, you wouldn't either.

One of the local schools notified us they were having a giant sleep over lock-in thing for the kids in the gym. They promised a police presence for security and the school nurse would be there so there will be no problems.

Just the same, I paid a visit on the afternoon of the big event. I strolled into the office and the first thing I noticed was a yellow blinking light on the alarm panel.

The alarm was in the trouble mode and silenced. I asked one of the office personnel and was told the alarm was on the "fritz." I told the principal that the sleep-over event wasn't happening until the alarm was "unfritzed."

Things got heated. In actuality, the principal was a very nice lady. She was very open to anything we wanted to do at school and even let us institute the NFPA Risk Watch program.

She smiled and challenged me to meet the parents who were going to be dropping off kids soon and tell them the event was cancelled. I asked her if I could roll her chair out to the curb so I could at least sit down while I met the parents. She called the maintenance office and the alarm got unfritzed.

After that I routinely visited schools to check the status of alarm systems.

Orange is the new green, white and black
The fire inspector has to be ready to see the unimaginable. I remember a warehouse wired with orange extension cords. Orange cords came out of a breaker box and disappeared into walls.

On another occasion I encountered a mom-and-pop auto body shop with a homemade paint booth for painting cars. The suppression system came off the cold-water line under a sink where it had been soldered in. 

I told them to have it inspected by a fire suppression company and to get a green tag. A few days later the sprinkler company showed up at the station and a wild-eyed technician started off with a "you're not going to believe this!"

Sure I would.

The fire inspector also has to be ready to make some decisions that can be wildly unpopular. A body shop owner once told me he had friends and he was offering money to eliminate me. The police stepped in after that.

So here's to you Mr. Fire Inspector. Keep up the vigil of keeping us all safe.

Let me hear from you. 

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