The Unseen Value of Inspection



This past spring, a New York Times article reported on the fracture of a critical beam discovered by inspectors during a routine inspection of the Hernando de Soto bridge, which crosses the Mississippi River. According to the article, the inspectors immediately called 911 to shut the bridge down. In response, the corresponding decision-makers did just that, even though it would be a major disruption to commuters and commerce. This action likely prevented a quietly looming disaster.

We don’t talk as often about when tragedies are averted. Somewhat ironically, when a full system of safety is in place, the factors that contribute to resulting successes often get overlooked. When buildings and other structures perform without incident, the role that inspectors and other code officials play in helping prevent disaster isn’t often seen or recognized by many. But the reality is when a fire doesn’t happen, it’s not magic or luck; it’s the result of multiple factors working together to prevent disaster. 

This bridge scenario underscores the critical role all safety officials collectively play, as well as the importance of working together toward a common goal of safety. That shared commitment to doing the right thing - even in the wake of possible pushback, inconvenience, and complaint - reflects key elements of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™.

Of course, there is always more we can do to make the public more aware of the true impact and value that codes and code officials play in our worlds each day, but for all of us in the world of fire and life safety, we must fully recognize and appreciate the key elements needed for code officials to perform their work effectively. This includes the proper training and tools to best perform their roles and responsibilities, as well as access to the most recent codes and standards, which ensures that the latest fire, life and electrical safety knowledge and advancements are applied.

Unfortunately, circumstances often get in the way of these ideals. We often hear code officials say that they suffer under heavy workloads, lacking the time and resources to carry out inspections on schedule. Additionally, while those tasked with conducting inspections may have industry-relevant work experience, they often lack the formal job training to perform their roles at the highest levels or keep up with the newer information. In many cases, inspectors’ work may even be perceived as a nuisance rather than providing an extremely valuable – and potentially life-saving – safety service. Lastly, if the most recent codes and standards are not being used, inspectors’ hands are tied in ensuring that buildings and other structures reflect the latest safety standards. Simply put, when code inspectors struggle to perform their jobs, fire and life safety suffers.

As an essential component of the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, enforcement is an important focus for NFPA. That voice and that role is central to achieving our mission to reduce loss.

While in decades past, inspectors and other code officials had limited access to resources beyond their immediate professional community, today’s digital access to information, resources, and support provides exponentially more networks and opportunities for code officials and inspectors working to connect with peers and get the support they need.

We continue to add to the tools that benefit like-minded professionals. Resources like NFPA Xchange provide a platform for inspectors to ask questions, voice their opinions and learn from others’ experience and expertise. Public sector officials and AHJs can also get help with technical standards questions by utilizing the NFPA “Technical Question Service.”

We know that a community of collaboration bringing inspectors, building officials and others together helps create a strong safety support system that protects everyone. In today’s world, that community extends far beyond the physical scope of where we work. By reaching out to the online network of peers and colleagues, code officials can receive the help they need to better deliver safety to the jurisdictions and communities they serve.

A bridge that didn’t collapse because of astute action should remind us of the very real, potentially life-saving impact we all carry as fire and life safety professionals. If we lose sight of this, it results in a weakened system of safety. And we simply can’t let that happen.