Welcoming the Middleman
Third-party administration of NFPA 25 enforcement programs
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2012
In these days of budget cutting at the state and municipal levels, resources are not always available to implement a full program of enforcement for NFPA 25, Inspection, Testing and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems. Without adequate enforcement, the provisions of NFPA 25 cannot ensure that these systems are ready when needed to protect lives and property.
As a result, a new concept is emerging where the private sector helps the public sector meet its responsibilities: third-party administration of NFPA 25 enforcement programs. The concept involves private firms that do not inspect the systems or enforce the standard, but serve as a middleman to make sure building owners comply with the applicable codes. They generally provide their services under contract, but at little or no cost, to a municipality; services are mainly paid for by fees charged to the contractor that provides the actual inspection services.
Third-party administrators track protected properties in municipalities, alerting property owners when inspections are due and giving them contact information for the firms that conducted their previous inspection or, if no such record exists, a list of firms that offer inspection services in their area. Third-party administrators alert the enforcement agencies if there is an issue of noncompliance or if problems are found with a fire protection system.
Changes made to the 2011 edition of NFPA 25 have made third-party administration programs more practical. These changes recognize “critical deficiencies” and “non-critical deficiencies” alongside traditional “impairments” as conditions that might prevent a system from being considered in a full and proper state of readiness. This allows a municipality to choose its own timeline and level of involvement in corrective measures. As part of this process, the enforcing agency must clearly differentiate between the various types of problems. Annex E of NFPA 25 includes an example of a classification system where the various inspection findings can be categorized.
A number of companies already offer third-party administration services, and municipalities can interview prospective partners. When doing so, the main goal should be ensuring compliance with NFPA 25. The third-party administrators are generally willing to tailor their programs to the needs of the municipality, but they should not be willing to compromise the requirements of NFPA 25. The municipality should be confident that the program is comprehensive.
Fairness is also a key aspect of a successful program, which should respect the relationships that have been established between building owners and the firms that provide inspection services, and should protect the confidentiality of such relationships.
Third-party administrators should not promote some inspection firms over others, except as needed to meet the legal requirements of the jurisdiction. The administrator should avoid conflicts of interest, such as would result from offering inspection services itself. Third-party administration firms should also be prevented from selling or otherwise distributing potential customer lists to inspection firms.
If implemented in a professional and ethical manner, third-party administration programs for NFPA 25 enforcement can be of great value. Enforcing agencies, building owners, inspection firms, and, most importantly, the general public will all benefit from a comprehensive and properly managed program that ensures system inspections are carried out in accordance with the standard.
Russell P. Fleming, P.E., is the executive vice-president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association.