Florida Becomes Hot Spot in Certification Debate

For more than 112 years, the UL mark has brought a positive response from consumers. For some alarm dealers and integrators, however, the UL symbol has become a source of anger.

Some alarm professionals — especially those who install fire and life-safety alarm systems — say UL is overstepping its bounds and trying to convince public entities to mandate third-party inspections. In response, UL officials say third-party testing from them and other groups is necessary for contractors to comply with an ever-growing list of standards and ordinances.

The war of words between the two recently had its battleground in Florida at a meeting of the Florida Electrical Contractors’ Licensing Board. UL had gone to the board seeking support for an exemption to a state law that says anyone who tests or inspects fire alarm systems must have a contractors’ license.

While that request was rejected due to what amounted to a legal technicality, it was seen as a victory by contractors opposing the mandating of third-party inspections in Florida and in jurisdictions beyond.

“UL will continue to try to win the war, and I can’t blame them,” says Norm Mugford, vice chairman of the licensing board and himself an owner of an alarm business. “I have the utmost respect for what they do, but it shouldn’t be mandated as law that we should use UL.”

Contractors say that if they need to be licensed, so should those who inspect them. UL says it should be exempt since it never handles the equipment and only observes its installation. Several local jurisdictions in Florida — and across the country — are requiring alarm companies to be listed by third-party certification, drawing even more fire from contractors.

The debate over mandated third-party certification is another battle in the continuing war in the industry over codes and standards.

Board Meeting Becomes Licensing Battleground
Just as Florida was a battleground in the 2000 presidential elections, it has become the front line of the debate between those who want more mandated testing and oversight of alarm installers, and those who don’t.

Florida remains the only state to have a law in the books that third-party alarm company inspectors like UL and FM Global must have licenses just like the companies they scrutinize.

At the same time, nine cities and five counties in Florida have passed or are about to enact ordinances where central stations and other alarm companies must be UL Listed to do business in their area.

During a March 24 morning meeting of the Electrical Contractors’ Licensing Board — a division of Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation — in Cocoa Beach, Fla., a discussion of whether the board should give its blessing to an exemption to third-party inspectors from the licensing law extended into a debate on whether municipalities should require companies to be third-party certified.

The licensing question came about in the aftermath of Florida House Bill 41 (HB41). Sponsored by State Rep. Hugh Gibson (R) and signed on June 1 of last year by Gov. Jeb Bush, HB41 made it a first-degree misdemeanor for a person to “install, service, test, repair, improve, or inspect a fire alarm system” without a license.

While UL had received a license for one of its inspectors — and FM Global recently had its own application for a license approved — both have still been lobbying for an exemption to the new law.

“We never touch the alarm system — that’s the job of the installer. What we do is observe them as they’re doing their work and make a finding that they’re doing it according to code,” says Steve Schmit, a section manager for UL’s Fire, Security and Signaling business unit. “For us to carry a license doesn’t improve the safety of the citizens of Florida.”

Schmit adds that he received a letter from HB41 sponsor Gibson stating that the original intent of his legislation was to make sure that installers were licensed, not third-party inspectors.

However, alarm contractor Bob Worthy says UL shouldn’t be held to a lower standard than the companies they inspect.

“They are writing contracts for compensation to perform these services, which puts them in the contractor category regardless of how they look at it,” says the president of Coral Springs, Fla., installer Secur Technologies Inc. “Nobody could understand why someone trying to set a higher standard would want to deregulate themselves. Nobody could figure it out.”

At the March meeting at the Hilton in Cocoa Beach, a lobbyist for UL asked the licensing board to endorse legislation that would make UL and other third-party inspectors exempt from licensing laws.

Florida Assistant Attorney General Reginald Dixon rose and put the vote to a halt before it even started. He said that the law was already in the books and UL was already complying with it — and added it wasn’t technically the board’s jurisdiction to endorse or reject the exemption.

Dixon says his decision wasn’t based on his personal opinion on the UL issue or even the law — just that it wasn’t the board’s place to make a decision either way.

“I didn’t have to look at the law as much as it wasn’t a matter of what the board could legally do or not do. My personal opinion on whether [UL] can do it or not is irrelevant,” Dixon says. “I advised the board that it didn’t have the authority to pass legislation. They were asking something from the board that it can’t legally do.”

In other words, the ultimate decision on whether UL and FM should be exempt from licensing — or whether localities can require alarm firms to be UL or FM certified — needs to be made in the Tallahassee halls of the state legislature or in the courts. Mugford, who along with helping to guide the contractors’ board leads AlarmPro Inc. of Palm Coast, Fla., says that as far as the board is concerned, the case is closed. Still, he wonders whether the licensing of third-party inspectors may spread beyond Florida’s borders.

“I don’t really know why they are looking for exemption other than the fact that if Florida requires them to be licensed, the other 49 states may force them to be licensed as well,” Mugford says. “We may have set a precedent.”

Certification Mandates Cause Conflict
Contractors opposing UL may have gained additional ammunition after Dixon told the board at the meeting that it was illegal for cities and counties in Florida to enact laws requiring alarm companies to be certified by UL or other third parties.

It was this mention that got to the heart of the biggest conflict between UL and some contractors.

Fire marshals in the state see the mandating of third-party certification as satisfying state alarm standards patterned after those created by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Contractors say, however, that such mandates can produce an overkill of verification and could be a financial burden on contractors.

Miami-Dade County, which includes the Florida metropolis of Miami, began enforcing on May 5 a new ordinance requiring companies that install and/or monitor fire alarms to be certified by UL or another third party.

Fire marshals say such a mandate will help reduce false alarms. They also say budgets are limiting their ability to inspect systems themselves, necessitating third parties.

“None of these reasons really wash,” says Worthy, who adds it’s the mandate that bothers contractors, not the inspections. “We have nothing against third-party verification. If the fire marshal wants to have a UL inspector, great. If they want all detectors to be purple, great. It’s how it&rsquo
;s being implemented. Those are the types of problems we see.”

UL’s critics in Florida say UL is using the state as a test-bed for the mandating of certification. However, UL’s Schmit says UL isn’t picking on Florida or its contractors.

“We have 75 to 80 different jurisdictions that require fire alarm certificates,” says Schmit, citing similar local mandates in San Francisco, Memphis, Knoxville, and suburbs of Minneapolis and Detroit, among other localities. “This isn’t a case of Florida going out on a limb. All they’re trying to do is enforce state building code that includes the national fire alarm code.

“Any fire marshal enforcing NFPA 72 could well come to paragraph 8.2.4 on complying with third-party verification. So I ask Mr. Alarm Company: How do you comply with 8.2.4?”

Mugford says his firm lost a $60,000 job in Lake Mary, Fla., because it isn’t UL certified, and Worthy says he has lost service contracts because of a certification mandate in Palm Beach. Still, he says his company won’t suffer as much as those just getting into the business.

In what he says is a “Catch-22,” a company just starting out that must be listed by UL to be permitted in a city doesn’t stand a chance to get that permit when UL requires an installer must install four systems overseen by a UL inspector before it can be UL Listed.

“A new company can’t start where this is in effect because they can’t install systems without a permit,” Worthy says. “They’re closing the door on contractors. It’s crazy what’s going on.”

When asked about this, Schmit said such a situation is hypothetical, but UL would work with a new company to help them attain their permit. “At this point in time, we’ve not had this come up as a real problem. Hypothetically, could it be a problem? Yes, it could be,” Schmit says. “Then we need a three-way conversation with the company, the jurisdiction and UL, and we could enter into an understanding where a company will do installations and UL will inspect them. You have to believe reasonable people could reach an agreement in good faith.”

The section manager says UL is also flexible in the number of installations needed for certification, saying one installation may even do for certification if they can demonstrate adherence to all aspects of NFPA 72 – National Fire Alarm Code.

Contractors Dispute Codes and Standards

The dispute over certification mandates has some similarities to the recent debate on NFPA 731: the Standard for the Installation of Electronic Security Systems (see the September 2005 issue of Security Sales & Integration).

There are few contractors one can find who are against all standards and guidelines for alarm installers. However, some say an excess of such mandates can restrict the free flow of business and hinder a company financially.

Schmit disputes those arguments, saying being an installer that abides by NFPA code and other standards isn’t that difficult.

“What we’re looking for is evidence installations have been done and maintained in compliance with the code,” Schmit says. “If they’re doing that anyway, this shouldn’t be a burden.”

But with everything already on an installer’s business plate, how much time really needs to be spent making sure the company is adhering to code?

Worthy says that especially in the case of Florida, which has a stringent set of licensing standards, a UL certification may be overkill.

“I think the state of Florida requires so much continuing education and a learning process to get a license that having all these other national entities come in and enforce a standard is not right,” he contends. “Why would a private entity have any kind of certification power over a company when these companies already have to answer to a state board. Our licensing here is already a Good Housekeeping symbol.”

Worthy claims that for all the talk of trying to assure end users of the reliability and effectiveness of their systems, UL’s drive at mandated certification comes down to dollars.

He says it costs an alarm company $6,000 to be listed for the first time with an annual $2,500 fee after that. “In the case of Dade County, there are about 400 contractors. You do the math.”

Schmit says money does figure into UL’s need to be exempt from licensing, but not because of a profit-motive. He says the fees UL would have to pay to be licensed could hinder UL’s services to its customers, and that cost could end up falling into the hands of alarm companies.

“It’s a bit of an inconvenience for us, but the bigger concern is we’re trying to keep the program as economical as possible for the business community,” Schmit says. “My concern isn’t for hindrance to UL – my real concern is the impact of cost to fire protection.”

Critics also say UL is keeping the results of alarm companies that violate state standards and ordinances to itself. The say if UL discovered the worst contractor in the world, people wouldn’t know it.

Schmit begs to differ. He says if UL finds a company in violation, it won’t be UL Listed and that would certainly be evidence to end users as well as the fire marshal on the quality of a company.

“I’m a little taken aback. We haven’t been accused of not being too strict before by customers,” Schmit says of UL’s confidentiality clause. “If a fire alarm system isn’t in alarm compliance, the contractor will have to bring it into compliance or we’ll cancel the certificate. We send fire marshals a list of all certificates in their jurisdiction. If one is cancelled, the fire marshal will know that’s happened.”

Battle Continues Over Certification Mandates

While the contractors’ board’s involvement in the Florida UL dispute has been resolved, the dispute itself hasn’t.

With Miami-Dade County about to enforce its certification mandate, the cities and counties in Florida will continue to say that an alarm company cannot do business in their jurisdiction if they are not certified – whether the assistant attorney general of Florida says it is legal or not.

At this point, alarm companies have only two routes to stop such laws if they dispute them: Either get action in the state legislature, or file a lawsuit against the city or county.

There isn’t any legislation pending that would crack down on local bodies enforcing certification mandates, and

Worthy says the legal route doesn’t look promising. “Someone is going to have to take legal action. Somewhere, somehow. But no company has the money to do that,” he says.

Certification mandates have already gone beyond Florida. Those against such mandates say they will use that morning meeting at the Cocoa Beach Hilton as the starting point for their drive against certification mandates.

“I think everything going on right now will slow this down a bit,” Worthy says. “Hopefully, this is not going to spread like wildfire, because if it does people will be out of business.

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