Category Archives: Phil Johnston

The Psychology Behind Deferred Maintenance & Repair of Fire Alarm & Suppression Systems

Throughout my career, I’ve seen many instances when otherwise properly-installed and once-functioning fire alarm or fire suppression systems were inoperable because of the failure to maintain or repair them. Each time I observed an inoperable or malfunctioning fire alarm or fire suppression system, the same question came to mind, “How did the system get from where it was to where it is now?”

Often, deferrals were due to concerns about the costs of periodic inspections and tests or fear that repairs would be costly. What owners or managers failed to realize was skipping the required inspections and testing or failing to make repairs simply increased the probability that maintenance and repair costs would eventually be much higher if problems went undetected and uncorrected for any length of time.

The axiom “It’s easier and less expensive to fix little problems than large ones” is as true with fire alarm and fire suppression systems as it is with other things. The essential question then becomes, “How do we overcome the deferred maintenance issue?”

In order to keep fire alarm and fire suppression systems properly maintained and in a constant state of readiness, facility managers must be committed to ensuring the systems are always ready to accomplish their intended purposes. The commitment needs to be preceded by motivation, hence the reference to the psychology behind deferred maintenance of these important systems.

What people may not realize is the lack of fire alarm or fire suppression system maintenance or repairs can, in most instances, be alleviated by the actions of others whose efforts are geared toward motivating facility managers. Who are these “others” who can do the necessary motivating?

These “others” are:
• the local fire inspection authority (fire department, building inspector, other entity, etc.);
• the facility’s property insurance company;
• the fire protection contractor(s) who initially installed the system(s).

This is where “psychology” comes into play. It’s necessary to have a multi-tiered approach to ensuring fire alarm and fire suppression system maintenance and repairs aren’t deferred. Long-term or short-term, no one benefits from the deferral of system maintenance or repairs.

Five important steps can help keep fire alarm and fire suppression systems in proper working condition.

1. The local fire inspection authority needs to inspect these systems periodically (at least annually), verify their status and determine if further work is needed to ensure the system is operable.
a. Periodic inspections by the fire inspection authority serve to remind facility managers that the system needs to be functioning and ready for inspection.
b. The fire inspection authority must be committed to working with facility managers and their designees to ensure fire detection and suppression systems are always operable.
c. The fire inspection authority must take steps necessary to gain corrections of violations of applicable codes and ordinances. The objective is compliance and maintaining systems in proper working condition.

2. The local fire inspection authority needs to convince facility managers and their personnel of the authority’s willingness to form an alliance with the facility to ensure that their fire alarm and fire suppression systems are properly maintained. It takes time and regular contacts in the course of motivating managers by whatever means are necessary to ensure proper system maintenance is provided. Sporadic inspections and infrequent contact by the fire inspection authority set the stage for apathy by managers and the possibility of poor or no system maintenance.  Do you remember the phrase, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind?” Frequent contact and visits are preferable to infrequent or no contact. Relationships must be pleasant and productive.

3. Facility managers need to understand they are directly responsible for ensuring system maintenance is performed at the required intervals and that the systems are fully capable of serving their intended purposes day or night, seven days a week, every day of the year. A persistent, yet polite, fire inspector who has taken the time to build an effective working relationship with a facility manager is much more likely to see satisfactory maintenance efforts undertaken to maximize system operability.

4. Property insurance companies need to conduct periodic inspections of fire alarm and fire suppression systems. In all likelihood, the insurance company required the systems and/or provides a reduction in premium for systems that are operable and properly maintained. When managers see the insurance inspector checking the system and realize insurance premiums may be adjusted upward or coverage reduced or cancelled due to lack of system maintenance, the importance of ensuring the systems are properly maintained is driven home. This is another form of “motivation.”

5. Fire alarm and fire suppression system contractors should take the initiative needed to remind managers of the need for a periodic evaluation of the system(s). A post card, an email, a telephone call, a personal visit or a combination of these approaches may be needed, but a lack of initiative by fire system contractors with regard to providing maintenance for clients’ systems only aggravates the problem. The fire protection contractor or company that initially installed a fire alarm or fire suppression system should pursue service agreements or “time and material” relationships so the systems are properly maintained by trained personnel who are familiar with both the equipment and the protected facility. A blend of marketing skills and a genuine interest in maintaining a high level of fire and life safety by contractors’ representatives are likely to motivate managers to authorize maintenance of their systems. Motivate the managers.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines psychology as “the study of mind and behavior in relation to a particular field of knowledge or activity.” It’s reasonable to conclude fire alarm and fire suppression systems are more likely to be properly maintained and quickly repaired when efforts are made to motivate and support the people who are legally responsible for their maintenance.

Periodic maintenance and repairs in accordance with NFPA and manufacturers’ recommendations help ensure these vital systems are able to alert occupants, transmit alarms and take appropriate suppression actions.

© 2014 Phil Johnston All Rights Reserved
[Permission to Reproduce or Use is Granted:
to Beth Welch of Honeywell Fire Systems]

About the Author
Phil Johnston’s fire protection career spanned 49 years, including a total of 24 years of service as the fire chief in Chico, CA; Boise, ID; Springfield, MO; Little Rock, AR; and Warrensburg, MO.