How Much Authority Do Fire Marshals Really Have?

Alarm dealers assess the amount of authority AHJs assert.

This being SSI‘s fire issue, here is a question to ponder: Is a fire marshal (authority having jurisdiction or AHJ) allowed to modify the fire code in a municipality without an amendment to the fire code? The short answer is that the AHJ is not permitted to change a fire code on his own, but he has considerable leeway to interpret the code and I suppose under some circumstances decide that something other than code is required. Always get the AHJ to document any change requested. That means in writing and signed. You’ve got filed plans and specs. That’s what you have to install.

Here are some other opinions from around the industry . . .

“The AHJ’s responsibility is to inspect the fire alarm systems with regard to code compliance and proper operation as well as conform with the accepted and approved plans. Any items or defects found should be documented and refer to specific sections of the code that the item stated did not comply. Actual code changes have to be done in a published and public hearing formation and not just arbitrarily,” says Stu Gilbert of the New York Fire Alarm Association.

“We had a similar situation with a local building official a few years ago. He insisted on full notification for a sprinkler supervisory system in a warehouse. I filed a request for a meeting of their officials to discuss the situation. One day he called me at 2:10 p.m. asking if I was going to attend the meeting. It started at 2 p.m. but he never provided that information; not an accident no doubt. The committee sided with the official, of course. The Burglar and Fire Alarm Association of Michigan [BFAAM] got involved to get this issue resolved once and for all. Many officials have their interpretation of this code section and BFAAM members would often have to acquiesce to get their plans approved. They decided in favor of BFAAM and notice went out to all AHJs clarifying that full occupant notification is not required for sprinkler supervisory systems. This shows that AHJs can be incorrect,” says Jim Anderson of Audio Sentry Corp.

“I bid on a shopping center; included were pull stations as required. It was a 16-store unit. Each unit had two exterior doors, a front door and a rear door. So that was 32 pull stations. Well some-one else got the job. I felt our price was competitive so I stopped by to check the progress and noticed that there were no pull stations on the rear exits. I asked the installer how he passed the inspection without the rear pull stations. He said, ‘Fire Marshal Bill doesn’t care about rear doors.’ Another time I was at a pool supply store to modify an existing fire alarm. The AHJ wanted a roof fan added because of chlorine storage. I added a fan shutdown and seemed to be OK. About three months later I got a call from the pool supply telling me to remove the shutdown circuit. ‘Fire Marshal Bill No. 2 came by and said the roof fan had to be removed because the next-door deli was taking air that the fan exhausted. The owner is trying to recover his loss through his lawyer and the town,’ they told me. These real-life experiences show AHJs have the power to be inconsistent and if you want to get paid you must do what they want under all conditions,” (name withheld).

“On occasion an AHJ will request something outside the code, such as an additional heat detector. This is clearly outside the scope of his or her authority. If the system design was accepted and meets the requirements of the code, they cannot require additional devices. That being said, the addition of extra detection devices would raise the system from meets to exceeds requirements. If we install additional devices it is usually on our own initiative. If an inspector says, ‘I know this is not required but I would like . . . ‘ we may try to accommodate that request if it makes sense to us as a safety issue. If an inspector makes a determination that you can ignore a requirement and does not put it in writing, the verbal approval is not worth the paper it is not printed on. If we discover a conflict in the code, we will usually follow the more stringent option,” says Joel Kent of FBN Security Co.

NOTE: The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of SSI, and not intended as legal advice.

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About the Author


Security Sales & Integration’s “Legal Briefing” columnist Ken Kirschenbaum has been a recognized counsel to the alarm industry for 35 years and is principal of Kirschenbaum & Kirschenbaum, P.C. His team of attorneys, which includes daughter Jennifer, specialize in transactional, defense litigation, regulatory compliance and collection matters.

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