Report: NFPA Electrical Inspector’s Forum

The National Fire Protection Association, by action of the Board of Directors chaired by George Ockuly, hosted a meeting and forum of electrical inspectors on May 22 – 23, 2006, at NFPA Headquarters, Quincy, Massachusetts. Mark Earley and the electrical division brought thirty-three electrical inspectors from across the United States to spend two days addressing: 1) enforcement officials’ critical needs, and 2) ways to elevate the professional status of the electrical inspector. This gathering of electrical inspectors was unique in that they were not there to discuss technical NEC issues.

The purpose for the forum was to identify issues where the electrical industry (coalition) can provide support that will enhance the quality of the electrical inspection process across the country (or around the world). NFPA recognizes this effort will result in safer electrical installations and foster a unified electrical position at the local level for quality inspections.

Special Presentations

Presentations on timely subjects were interspersed in the agenda. These special presentations were:

  1. Changes to the NFPA Standards Making Process, Casey C. Grant, NFPA assistant vice president and secretary to the NFPA Standards Council
  2. NFPA Regional Operations, Raymond B. Bizal, NFPA West Coast regional manager
  3. Relations with the News Media, Lorraine Carli, NFPA assistant vice president – Communications
  4. Critical Infrastructure Assessment, Donald P. Bliss, director NI2 Center for Infrastructure Expertise; chairman, NEC code making panel 20

Discussion Modules

A steering committee, comprised of International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI) leaders from across the nation, developed an agenda consisting of four discussion modules, which are described in this article. The steering committee members—Robert McCullough, Ocean County, New Jersey; Donny Cook, Pelham County, Alabama; Dick Owen, City of St. Paul, Minnesota; Tim Owens, City of Santa Clara, California; and James Carpenter, CEO and executive director, IAEI— served as facilitators for the four modules. Doug Geralde, with the Canadian Standards Association, also served on the steering committee although he was unable to attend.

The Forum Steering Committee, the Electrical Code Coalition, IAEI, and NFPA are committed to utilizing the summary points that came out of the four discussion modules for electrical industry actions that will supplement efforts in place within electrical inspection departments across the U.S. for quality electrical inspections that are focused on customer service.

Module I —
The Status of Your Inspection Department
Facilitators: Donald Cook and Robert McCullough

Discussion Topics

  • Is your inspection department growing?
  • Is your jurisdiction using combination inspectors?
  • Is your jurisdiction using private or contract inspectors? What are the advantages/disadvantages of this approach?
  • How is the inspection department perceived by your city council, legislators, or other controlling body?
  • Does your department have an appeals process? How does it work?
  • Are you faced with safety versus cost pressures?
  • How does your inspections department address code enforcement and inspections in large industrial facilities?
  • Regarding technology (computers, PDAs), is their use increasing and what types of electrical programs are being used?
  • What type of relationship does your department have with other governmental departments/agencies [i.e., building departments (if electrical is separate) and fire department]? Does Homeland Security impact these relationships in a positive or negative manner?
  • Do you report directly to a chief building official? What is your relationship with the CBO?
  • Does your inspection department / agency perform any public education or outreach? Have you promoted the ESFI Electical Safety Month?
  • How does your municipality and department rate in regards to ISO evaluation of the quality of the inspection department?
  • Do you deal with the media to promote electrical safety and have you had basic media training?
  • How is the success of an inspection department measured? Are there quantifiable assessments that can be used to demonstrate the value of electrical inspections?
  • Does your jurisdiction require certification and are you required to maintain that certification?
  • Is customer service a priority in your department? What measures have been made to improve customer service?

Summary of Module I

Although there were only thirty-three participants, they represented a diverse cross section of the country: geographically, large and small jurisdictions, municipalities and counties, men and women, chief and rank-and-file inspectors. It was learned that even though the inspection departments may not retain the revenue they generate in the department, most electrical inspection departments ranged from being revenue neutral to being profit centers. Since most of the inspection positions are governmental, the salaries are subject to a higher authority, resulting, in a majority of the cases, in salaries that are not commensurate with the prevailing wages of electricians in the area.

The prevailing perception was that city/county councils or legislative bodies are unaware of what inspection departments actually do or of their importance. The inspectors are not often thought of as “professionals” or are considered a “necessary evil.” Interaction between the electrical department and other departments (building, fire) was considered by the majority of the participants as being sufficient. The use of electronic media has improved interaction with all departments.

Most of the electrical departments were part of the building department; and the consensus of the group was, where building officials are the heads of the department, there is a trend to place a higher priority on building official training rather than training for the electrical inspectors.

Certification of electrical inspectors was diverse with many jurisdictions accepting applicants with little qualifications and no experience. It was found that certification is not always deemed necessary. Some states do have strong certification programs and some of them do recognize IAEI’s Certified Electrical Inspector program.

The discussion yielded the following points that promote an effective electrical inspection program and those points that do not promote an effective electrical inspection program.

Characteristics that promote an effective electrical inspection program

The department is revenue positive and is able to retain and expend all monies that it collects for construction related activities.

Salaries are commensurate with those of other public safety officials and with those of the practitioners whose work they are inspecting. Staffing is maintained at a level to keep pace with the workload.

Training and professional development/certification in the electrical field is required and funded.

Participation in professional organizations such as IAEI is supported and funded.

The necessary equipment such as computers, cell phones, PDAs, and reliable vehicles are provided.

Departments respond to requests for inspection quickly and provide access to the inspection department files via the internet to improve customer service and access. Inspectors complete reports using computers and the reports are available online shortly thereafter.

The role of the department as a customer service organization is promoted by its managers.

The department is proactive in helping designers and contractors comply with requirements.

The department works in conjunction with other public safety departments such as fire, building and community planning departments.

The department is perceived by the public and elected officials as having an important role in public safety.

Community outreach is considered an important function of the department.

The department keeps up-to-date with the industry it is charged with regulating by adopting the most recent editions of the NEC and related safety codes and standards

Characteristics that do not promote an effective electrical inspection program

The department is either revenue negative or the excess monies that it collects are turned over to the overall general fund. No reinvestment in the department.

Salaries are lower than those of the practitioners whose jobs are being inspected.

Attrition depletes the manpower and results in increased workload.

Training and professional development/certification in the electrical field are not promoted or funded.

Participation in professional organizations is “on your own time” and not funded.

Technology advancement in job aids lags or the department gets the hand-me-downs.

The department is only reactive to problems and is perceived as “the necessary evil” by the public and elected officials.

Community outreach is not encouraged.

Code adoption lags behind the most recent national codes and standards.

Module II —
Approving Electrical Equipment
Facilitator: Timothy Owens

Discussion Topics

  • Does your department require listed equipment? What is the process for accepting field evaluations of unlisted equipment?
  • How do you sell the message of using listed electrical products?
  • Do you approve unlisted equipment in your jurisdiction? What do you use as your approval basis?
  • How does your jurisdiction decide on or evaluate third party testing organizations that will be performing field inspections in your community?
  • Is there a formal approval program for testing organizations in your jurisdiction?
  • Does your jurisdiction have its own testing program/facility?
  • Has product counterfeiting been a problem in your jurisdiction?

Summary of Module II

Not all participant jurisdictions have formalized procedures or programs for requiring that electrical equipment, materials, or products be listed. Several jurisdictions represented had state statutes or regulations that addressed listing of electrical equipment, materials, and products. A number of jurisdictions have implemented programs and developed minimum criteria for approving testing laboratories whose listed products will be acceptable in that jurisdiction.

The consensus of the group was that a standardized process for requiring listing, qualifying laboratories, and establishing procedures for approving unlisted equipment would be helpful. Most inspectors are not comfortable approving equipment on their own. Inspectors are under increasing pressure to approve equipment built to other countries’ standards, without evaluation for use in the U.S. by a recognized testing laboratory. Some jurisdictions accept OSHA’s nationally recognized testing laboratories (NRTLs) listing of electrical equipment. Some give information regarding NRTLs to owners and builders so that the owner can ensure that the equipment has been evaluated by a recognized testing laboratory before being “turned down” upon inspection.

Problems encountered by inspection authorities in approving electrical equipment
Listing of electrical equipment is a misunderstood concept.
The CE mark has been misinterpreted and misrepresented as a listing mark. The CE mark is a self-certification mark.

The withholding of an occupancy permit due to unlisted equipment becomes a political issue. Many times there is pressure to accept unlisted equipment if it is holding up the progression of a construction project. Inspectors are told, “You’re the only place in the county that makes me do this!”

Unless counterfeiting is obvious (incorrect listing mark, misspelling of words, etc.) the inspector may not be aware of a problem with the equipment. Very little specific information is available to the field inspector.

Solutions to help overcome problems encountered with approving electrical equipment
The electrical industry must be proactive in educating its members and its consumers on the difference between listing and self-certification and emphasize the safety benefits of using listed equipment.

The electrical industry needs to have an awareness campaign of the U.S. electrical safety system. Equipment that is designed for use in a European electrical installation often requires modification to be used in an NEC environment. If not properly done, the modifications can introduce hazards.

End of job problems can be avoided through proactive review of plans.

The local electrical inspectors are often the information link between the electrical industry and its consumers and it is essential that electrical inspectors be educated on equipment listing, field evaluation of equipment, and alternative processes for equipment evaluation.

The local electrical inspector must be proactive in communicating with and educating customers on equipment evaluation requirements during the plan review and inspection processes to prevent end of job problems.

A standardized guideline or recommended practice for equipment approval would be useful across the U.S. It would be a major, but worthwhile effort. If it could be developed and supported by the entire electrical industry, it would be very useful to local inspectors.

A joint electrical industry marketing effort on listing versus self-certification would be useful.

Module III —
Disaster Recovery
Facilitator: Richard Owen

Discussion Topics

  • Getting the inspection department back up and running.
  • Balancing the need to restore power and maintain safety.
  • Self-inspection/certification.
  • Homeland security initiatives impacting your job as an electrical inspector.

Summary of Module III

A presentation by Larry Chan, chief electrical inspector, city of New Orleans, Louisiana, and Bill McGovern, chief electrical inspector, city of Plano, Texas, covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and focused on the damage and the difficulties faced by the inspection department as well as the residents. Bill McGovern had gone to New Orleans as a volunteer to provide assistance to the New Orleans inspection department during the recovery efforts. A discussion among the participants concerning the lessons that were learned through this disaster and other disasters revealed that even though there may be an emergency response plan in effect, many were not prepared in advance. In many cases, the electrical inspection departments were not part of the planning of the emergency operations plan. It was stressed that an emergency plan be in place and be reviewed and updated often. All essential employees, including the electrical inspector must be issued identification and credentials to facilitate getting back into the disaster area. Knowing contact persons in the various agencies and having communication with them was deemed an important consideration. The need to have a recovery plan—on how to handle inspections and authorization for restoring power while maintaining safety—was a major concern.

Significant Points Learned from Disaster Presentations

A presentation on New Orleans’ recovery showed what can happen when many basic requirements to life are gone.

Most electrical inspection authorities have a disaster plan in place.

Most electrical inspection (and building inspection) authorities are involved with and work with other disaster responders such as police and fire.

A problem after a disaster is trying to keep up with increased demand for inspection. Some times, political forces want to exempt disaster repairs from inspections, and the AHJ has to resist this pressure to ensure that electrical safety is not compromised during the crisis.

Action Items for Electrical Inspection Departments to Plan for Disasters
Jurisdictions must have a disaster recovery plan which includes inspection of repairs to electrical systems. Rules for equipment replacement must be in place before the disaster occurs.

Procedures must be created to allow inspectors to cross police, fire, and National Guard lines.

Developing close working relationships with utilities is vital during recovery.
Training inspection department personnel on the disaster recovery plan is an essential element to successful implementation at the time of crisis.

Module IV —
Status of IAEI in Your Area
Facilitator: James W. Carpenter

Discussion Topics

  • Does your jurisdiction support membership in IAEI and do they pay for your membership?
  • What are the hallmarks of a successful IAEI chapter or division?
  • Do you consider your chapter to be successful? Can you identify specific examples of that success?
  • Does mandatory continuing education for electrical inspectors, electricians and engineers create training opportunities for local IAEI chapters and in turn help strengthen the chapter financially and in attendance?
  • What are good strategies to revitalize a struggling chapter or division?
  • As an inspector, do you take advantage of or promote local networking for the purpose of achieving uniform Code enforcement through a state, county or other region?

Summary of Module IV

A perfect model for an IAEI chapter or division could not be identified. Those chapters or divisions that strived to meet the purposes of IAEI by enhancing the knowledge and improving the skills of its members were successful and growing. Meeting content that provides training and education was the hallmark of a successful chapter or division. Timing of the meetings, daytime or evening, attracted different types of attendees. The requirement for continuing education enhanced attendance at meeting that issued continuing education credits. This also increased membership. The quality of the content of the technical portion of the meeting keeps people interested and coming back for more.

It was noted that only about 50 percent of inspectors in each area were members of IAEI.

Characteristics identified resulting in successful IAEI chapters and meetings

Effective chapter leadership and succession, particularly for those charged with planning quality meetings, is critical.

Hallmarks of a good chapter include continuing education and high quality speakers at meetings.

Meetings must be announced with agendas showing the value of attending.

Jurisdictions must be shown the importance (value added) of attendance.

Taking the value that IAEI provides to inspectors at the section level back to the local level will improve the quality of electrical inspections.

Taking IAEI value to the local level could increase support of the organization by increasing membership.

Increasing IAEI membership and training at the local level will provide great value to the grassroots members of the electrical industry as a whole.

Many jurisdictions pay for their electrical inspector to belong to IAEI

Many successful chapters have a long history of success. The reasons for the success vary—some for inspector training, some for inspector’s meetings, some for training journeymen and inspectors.

A number of chapters move their meetings around to different areas in order to encourage local attendance.

Many successful chapters have several meetings per year, sometimes monthly.

Successful chapters try to include other electrical professionals—engineers, utility members, electricians, etc.

Successful chapters attracting the non-traditional inspection categories including combination inspectors and home inspectors.

Feedback on Overall Forum

Excellent program — long overdue and much needed! That was the overriding comment received from the participants. The first NFPA Electrical Inspector’s Forum was highlighted by the ability to share concerns, problems, and successes (other than Code-related subjects) with peers from across the country. The opportunity to network during and after the meeting was invaluable. The shared information was expected to be used to expand the individual jurisdiction’s program. Information on what has been successful or unsuccessful will help in improving the programs in the jurisdictions represented.

NFPA President Jim Shannon, the forum participants, and the steering committee extend high praise to the NFPA Board for their support of this initiative and to NFPA’s management, electrical department staff, and other staff who worked tirelessly to ensure that this first forum was a resounding success. The importance of NFPA President Jim Shannon and Board of Directors Chair George Ockuly actively participating in this program cannot be overstated. Their remarks and Mr. Ockuly’s participation through the entire two days of the program sent a clear message to the participants that electrical inspection professionals are recognized and valued as leaders in the U.S. electrical safety system.

However, the overall success of the program is due in large part to the synergy amongst the participants. The facilitators, who did a fabulous job in stimulating discussion and maintaining focus, all commented that leading these discussions was not at all difficult because of the preparedness of the participants. The open and free exchange of thoughts and ideas by men and women, leaders in their profession, yielded a dialog that far exceeded the expectations of those who planned and attended this event. The overall outcomes of this first forum is a great first step towards helping electrical inspection professionals perform their vital public safety roles more effectively and in getting the word out that electrical inspectors are indeed an important resource in their communities.

Plans for the Future

Now that the forum has identified many common issues, NFPA plans to continue with another forum next year. Ways and means of how jurisdictions can solve the most common problems will be addressed. Stay tuned, you may be asked to participate next year.

Preliminary 2007 Discussion Module Topics

  • Becoming Indispensable: Taking Inspections to the Next Level
  • Selling Safety: How to Market the Need for Listed Equipment
  • Disaster Recovery: How to Convey the Importance of Inspection During Disaster Recovery
  • Meetings No One Wants to Miss: How to Plan a Good Chapter/Division meeting