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Ah yes, AHJs. You cannot live with them and you most definitely cannot live without them. The official NFPA definition of an Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) is “An organization, office or individual responsible for enforcing the requirements of a code or standard, or for approving equipment, materials, an installation or a procedure.” Or, “Approved. Acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction.”
We need AHJs because someone must be responsible for interpreting our building codes and standards. The codes cannot possibly cover all situations, so someone needs to help fill in the gaps. Good AHJs are very important as they serve as an important backstop in the process.
Having some experience with the standards development process, I often see where the language in a code or standard is purposely left vague so the AHJ can exercise some judgement in applying a requirement to a certain condition.
The trouble I see with AHJs is that too few of them are willing to exercise judgement and often resort to the strictest possible interpretation when perhaps a more reasonable position would be best.
Please understand, I do not think all AHJs are like that; most are not. But there are enough to make me want to consider retiring when I wake up on Monday mornings. Having once been an AHJ, I feel I have standing to voice these concerns.
Now, I understand it is incumbent upon AHJs in most instances to render judgments based on strict enforcement of the code. I believe that an AHJ who is not more than occasionally pissing someone off is not doing his or her job. An AHJ must be willing to say “no.”
That an AHJ says no is not what is troubling me. It is that we have too many inexperienced AHJs out there who are afraid to say no because they do not know the nuances of the code. It also seems to me some AHJs believe their entire job is to tell consultants what the code says.
If all you are doing as an AHJ is parroting the code, you may not be doing all you can do to serve the public.
One reason some AHJs lack the confidence to deviate from the code or standard is they tend to lack a basic understanding of the intent behind the requirement.
One who does not know why a requirement is necessary is less able to apply good judgment and common sense to those situations where compliance with the letter of the code is not practical and where a reasonable accommodation can be made.
I believe this is why issues with AHJs exist:
• The litigious society we live in and the need to always assign blame to a problem rather than just plain fixing it. Worry about being sued or criticized about a mistake would tend to keep one close to the code.
• Our code development processes are trying to make the public safer with ever-expanding and detailed prescriptive code measures. It has had the effect of dumbing down the role of the AHJ. I see countless code proposals submitted to address a specific issue with a specific AHJ that person is dealing with. It would be better to avoid this kind of code tinkering, leave the code flexible and deal with the issue through education of the official.
• In the fire protection engineering field, AHJ engineering positions tend to be entry-level positions and do not always have the highest salaries.
• Many AHJ positions are one-person offices. That fire protection engineer is all alone with no other FPEs to provide guidance.
• Having been “burned” one too many times, AHJs may mistrust the expert with the briefcase.
So, what is the answer? I am not sure how to solve the problem of a litigious society. For the other items, those of us in the profession can help through education and mentoring.
Education and Mentoring
Young FPEs should seriously consider positions with engineering groups, consulting or otherwise, with a strong, cohesive group of experienced fire protection engineers who can serve as mentors.
In the old days, the best fire protection engineering experience was obtained by working as a field engineer for large insurance companies such as FM, IRI, Kemper, etc. Later, this role was assumed by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, which for many years developed a strong, nationwide network of capable FPEs within their several field divisions. The HPR firms and the Navy accomplished it through a program combining on-the-job training with mentoring by experienced engineers.
Nowadays, the major fire protection engineering consulting firms provide one of the best mentoring environments as their branch offices often contain many experienced FPEs.
Those firms employing young fire protection engineers as AHJs and do not have a group of FPE mentors in-house must commit to providing those young engineers with educational and mentoring opportunities. Attendance at National Fire Protection Association and Society of Fire Protection Engineers conferences and seminars, and support of activity in SFPE, both international and with local chapters, are good opportunities for education and networking.
Engaging with experienced engineers and young engineers at conferences, seminars and chapter meetings is of great value. Recent SFPE annual conferences have held a special session, the Emerging Professional Networking Event, where young engineers meet one-on-one with experienced engineers — a form of speed mentoring.
The young FPE acting as an AHJ without a mentoring group within the company must do his part to seek out such mentoring and training opportunities.
Those of us who work across the table from AHJs also have a responsibility. Sometimes negotiation on code issues is not possible due to a lack of trust. We can develop this trust by constantly demonstrating that we are always going to approach a problem with a firm regard for the key goals of life safety and property protection, not just looking for the least expensive deal for the client.
Trust also can be developed by making a strong effort to educate the AHJ or provide educational opportunities.
It will not be too far in the future before an AHJ who reads the code back to us will be unnecessary,
What can never be replaced is someone who has a passion for the protection of life and property and, when trying to meet that goal, has enough common sense to know the code does not have all the answers.