Although many dealers and integrators could make a good living protecting life and property, along with that profitability also comes a humbling measure of responsibility. And liability. Consequently, it’s not a niche that appeals to everybody.
Here four successful life safety professionals talk candidly about why installing smoke detectors, CO detectors, pull stations and sirens is more important to them â€” and their businesses â€” than any other type of installation. All seem to share a common conviction. Saving lives is the main priority.
“Life can be lost without a life safety fire system,” says Scott Fox, president of Interlink Security & Communications,Wantagh, N.Y. “There are different stages of a fire,” he explains. “If you can get an early detection of smoke you can save lives.”
For Franco Petraski, service manager for Fire Systems West, Pacific, Wash., protecting lives is vital. “I love what I do because I’m responsible for lives and the safety of people and property. We all have families that we love. How devastating it would be to lose them if a fire broke out and smoke detectors didn’t go off.”
RULES, REGULATIONS & LIABILITYFortunately, on the commercial side at least, there are strict laws in place to make sure those smoke detectors do go off. “There are city codes that new buildings have to follow,” Petraski states. “The fire alarms and sprinkler systems are mandated by the AHJs (Authority Having Jurisdiction). Sprinklers are required. Security systems, cameras and access systems are not.”
As president of Firepower Inc, Spokane, Wash., Bart Onoday does mainly commercial fire systems and adds, “The beauty of providing life safety is that it’s mandated. Anytime a building is constructed, there’s a mandate for a fire alarm system of some type. The extent of the system depends on the type of facility it is, but everything is cut and dry regarding what’s required if you know the occupancy type and the jurisdiction.”
The insurance requirements are high because there’s so much liability, Onoday points out. “We strive to put our products in per manufacturer specifications and installation procedures so we limit our liability â€” our manufacturers tell us how to install it. When we’re done with a project â€” before the owners can use the facility â€” it has to be inspected by the municipality and meet their criteria. It keeps us conscientious. We want to know when we put something in, it works.”
Petraski subscribes to that same level of standards and is vigilant about warding off liability issues by delivering quality installs. “All my guys have to be state of Washington electricians; they have to be journeymen and licensed. The state doesn’t have a required NICET level yet, but I have my guys certified. It’s part of Fire Systems West’s requirements.”
Fox, who started out doing residential systems, has migrated more to commercial installs. Projects span office spaces, restaurants, Trader Joe’s locations and schools, which he says are the biggest liabilities. “In an office building, a pull station and strobes can suffice; you don’t have to do the individual offices. But in schools every space has to be covered and also include equipment for the hearing and visually impaired, which is good as it ensures the safety of the kids.”
Although not governed by the same strict codes and mandates, residential life safety systems are also critically important. Stephen Merola, president of Futuristic Home, Point Lookout, N.Y., is placing more and more importance on this sector of his business. As a volunteer fireman, saving lives is a subject very close to his heart.
“To me it’s a no brainer because of my background,” Merola says. “I’ve been a firefighter since 1974 â€” and if you count my military time â€” beginning in 1969 part of my job on the air carrier was to man the fire station. I’ve seen so many things happen that could’ve been different if more attention had been paid to the importance of life safety systems. I don’t have the conscience NOT to bring it to people’s attention because I know what we can do now. The technology is really not that expensive when you think about what your kid’s life is worth.”
GETTING THE WORD OUTThe National Training Center (NTC), which provides high quality training to the low voltage industry (including NICET Level I, II, III and IV Fire Alarm Systems, NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm, IFC/IBC, and International Codes classes), offers some advice to dealers on how they can market their life safety expertise to potential customers to raise awareness and generate sales. NTC vice president Bryan McLane recommends putting the words “fire alarm” and “life safety systems” on all your marketing and advertising materials, including business cards and company vehicles. “Letting customers know you are ‘in the business’ is important,” he says. “Once you become NICET Certified, use the NICET logo on your materials.”
While marketing is a key business-driver for a lot of companies, Fox, Onoday, Petraski and Merola count primarily on word of mouth referrals. Merola of Futuristic Home probably is the strongest advocate of marketing of the four.
Recommendations come from happy customers, and happy customers must be cultivated. Follow-up is essential, especially in an area as critical as life safety. “Through NFPA, fire systems have to be inspected at least annually,” Onoday notes. “Some insurance companies require additional inspections quarterly or bi-annually, so we’re continually seeing our customers at least once a year. It there have been any changes in the facility, we upgrade them. Once we have a customer, they typically stay with us for the life of the system, which may be 10 to 15 years.”
Fox feels that a majority of security professionals prefer not to do fire due to the liability issues that could arise if something goes wrong. “It’s a major responsibility,” he says. “I make sure the systems are done 100 percent right and do semi-annual testing of the systems, cleaning and maintaining of the systems. We do charge for that, at a moderate cost to the customer.”
STAYING ON TOP OF NEW CODES & PRODUCTSConscientious life safety professionals make it their business to stay apprised of new codes and regulations. To do this, Onoday buys the new code books and works closely with the fire marshals in each jurisdiction he works in. For dealers to stay competitive and in the know, Petraski also stresses how important it is to be caught up on all the codes, with NFPA 72 being a big one.
DONâ€™T WAIT TIL TRAGEDY STRIKESUnfortunately, it often takes a tragic event to trigger awareness of just how important life safety systems are. All four of these dealers have seen this first-hand. Headlines depicting the horrific fire tragedy at The Station night club in Rhode Island or the untimely death of tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis by carbon monoxide poisoning highlight the message of just how important life safety systems are.
“Everyone’s much more aware after these terrible events occur,” Fox agrees. “I remember my phones started ringing off the hook after both of these terrible events. People get very gungho about protecting themselves but, unfortunately, it’s too late for somebody else,” he says.
Merola sees the same trend. “There’s no question about it. If something bad happens, people become more aware of the need to protect themselves. These events are tragic, which is why we should never stop making our sales calls. We can help prevent them.”