A conversation with Meki J. Toalepai, Sr., PE, of the Architects/Engineers/Building Officials Section.
What NFPA codes are particularly relevant to your work?
The codes that are most important to me are NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, and NFPA 10, Portable Fire Extinguishers. They are important because I am both the facility engineer and the safety officer for our facility, and I'm responsible for the safety of our personnel and property. I have a keen interest in the life safety field and hope to share more of my lessons learned with my NFPA colleagues in the future.
I'm noticing that more attention is needed on the systematic testing and inspecting of life safety systems in facilities in general. I also note the lack of accountability for recordkeeping and reporting of all code-mandated testing. I started my own monthly program back in 2011 when I started here in Hawai’i and was pleasantly surprised when NFPA released NFPA 3, Commissioning and Integrated System Testing, followed by NFPA 4, Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety System Testing, in the 2015 cycle. I felt like I was ahead of the curve.
Before I came to work for the DoD, my career was mainly electrical design. In my current role as facilities engineer, I see the codes from a new perspective, namely from an operations and maintenance standpoint. I’ve noticed a lack of code-mandated testing and inspecting protocol, not only in the DoD, but in the State of Hawai’i in general. I'm working to change this, beginning with my agency. Armed with NFPA 101, NFPA 10, NFPA 3, and NFPA 4, I'm developing a more robust and comprehensive monthly program of testing and inspecting life safety equipment.
How do codes affect your work?
I've observed that most building owners or personnel have no idea that their life safety equipment has to be regularly tested and inspected, as dictated by NFPA codes. Between their lack of knowledge and the lack of code enforcement by the authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs), many components of life safety systems don’t work properly, if at all. Most DoD facilities personnel, particularly those serving rotational tours at field sites, have little to no code experience, so once the systems are installed, tested, and accepted, they receive little to no attention.
I'm working to standardize a process that addresses code requirements through the entire life cycle of a life safety system, from design to construction to maintenance. I'm also working with AHJs to ensure that facilities personnel and code officials are on the same page.
What NFPA or section events have you recently attended?
I attended the 2014 NFPA Conference & Expo and participated in the learning sessions that addressed life safety, commissioning, and code enforcement. I heard echoes of the same problems that I've identified in my facility, which reinforces the need for my standardizing initiative.
They also touched on my point that there has to be a better system of accountability from the facilities personnel up to the state AHJs. Some thought needs to be given to implementing a monthly online test reporting capability to help facilities become or remain code-compliant.
What is the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is the continuous learning as the codes evolve. You're never truly an expert, since the expertise grows with each lesson learned, as does the level of safety for building occupants. I’ve learned to apply the codes to all phases of the life safety system life cycle.
Serving as a facilities engineer has opened my eyes to the deficiencies with regards to operations and maintenance of life safety systems. In my short time at Camp Smith, I've been able to correct several life safety code violations, including improper electrical circuiting of life safety lighting fixtures, replacing performance-deficient light fixtures, working with manufacturers on battery life issues, and implementing a code-based monthly testing plan. Each step along the way, we’ve maximized life safety for our personnel.
I've also had the pleasure of sharing my expertise with other tenants on the base. In January 2015, I was named my agency's Distinguished Occupational Safety & Health Officer, and I'm just getting started with my plan of standardizing best practices.
What is the best advice you can give to someone getting started in your field?
The best advice I can give to someone just starting out is to keep doing the right thing. Many in management question the importance of devoting so much time and effort each month to life safety equipment. Remind them that you are responsible for life safety and teach them that the law requires that this equipment be tested. Study the codes to become the subject matter expert and share the lessons you’ve learned so everyone benefits. Take credit for your work and know that you're making a difference.
Is there one thing you want others to know about NFPA?
I want everyone to know that NFPA is on their side! Some people I talk to believe some of the code practices to be a waste of money, but in reality, the exact opposite is true. Adhering to NFPA's maintenance requirements for life safety systems and components is the best investment owners and building managers make. If a significant event should happen in their facilities, they will have peace of mind in knowing that their due diligence in maintaining their systems per code will eliminate or minimize any resulting liability. NFPA helps them do the right thing...and that's good!