Sprinkler Fitter Certification; So What’s All the Fuss About?
Written by Randy Roxson   
Monday, 24 May 2010 10:41

In early 2008, Governor Arnold Swartznegger presented his “I Built It” program.  To get the California economy energized, the Governor launched his “I Built It” campaign to train thousands of new workers for public projects.  The Governor stated, “We want to get 200,000 new apprentices in the next 10 years”.   The Governor believes that apprenticeship training builds a skilled labor force.

Sprinkler Fitter Apprenticeship
Apprenticeship training is commonly used in the construction trades, and more specifically, the sprinkler fitter profession.  But other professionals have required training programs as well, but do not call it “apprenticeship” training.  Police officers have police academies, firefighters fire academies, lawyers law school, and doctors medical school.  
Accountants ultimately become “certified”, nurses and engineers become “registered”, and lawyers and doctors become “licensed”.  These terms mean that the individual, after becoming trained, have demonstrated they possess the necessary skills and qualification to engage in their profession.  
But what would society think if only one lawyer of a law firm were required to be licensed, or only one doctor of an entire medical practice?  Or, what if only one firefighter per engine were required to be trained?
Our society has an expectation that the latter professionals have been trained and tested prior to their working in their respective career fields.  That makes sense, right?  Well, some say no.  There are those who believe that sprinkler fitters, whose profession it is to install life safety systems, need not be required to be skilled or to demonstrate they are qualified. 
Unfortunately, many connect apprenticeship training with “unions”, and they tend to believe unions are bad.  Unions do a very good job training its members through apprenticeship training agreements with its contractors.  Union sprinkler fitters are trained through apprenticeship training programs, most of which are 5-year training programs.  But, it is not only unions that have state-approved sprinkler fitter apprenticeship training programs.  
In California, there are 4 state-approved sprinkler fitter apprenticeship-training programs, administered by its Department of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS).  Three are union sponsored; the other sponsored by the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA) for nonunion sprinkler fitters.  The AFSA state-approved apprenticeship-training program provides the nonunion sprinkler fitter the opportunity to obtain the necessary skills required to be qualified to install fire suppression life safety systems.
Licensing and Certification
In California, a myriad of professions are required to be state licensed or certified, but only after successful completion of a specified number of classroom training hours, work experience, and written examination.  Among them are hair stylists, smog technicians, pharmacy technicians, opticians, embalmers, dental assistants, landscape architects, court reporters, hemodialysis technicians, real estate appraisers, locksmiths, security guards, private investigators, automobile repossessors, and on and on.  These professions are licensed or certified through the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA).  
Additionally, electricians are required to be certified in California.  They include general electricians, residential electricians, non-residential lighting electricians, voice data video technicians, and installers of burglary and fire alarm systems of a specific voltage.  These professionals must be certified by the Department of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS), or otherwise be actively enrolled in a state-approved apprenticeship program.
But in California, anyone can install a fire suppression life safety system, as long as they are employed by a company licensed as a Fire Protection Contractor (C-16) by the Contractors State Licensing Board (CSLB.  The individual who actually installs the fire suppression system isn’t required to have any such credentials, nor be supervised by anyone having sufficient training, knowledge and experience installing fire suppression systems.
And what does it take for a company to get a C-16 Fire Protection Contractor’s license?  At least one (1) individual of the company, regardless of size, must:
Document at least four (4) full years of journeyman-level or higher experience in the classification for which they are applying, in this case the C-16 Fire Protection Contractor.  The experience must have been obtained within the last ten (10) years.  Qualifying as 4-years experience is any one of the following:
  • An individual who is an “experienced worker” who is fully qualified and able to perform the trade without supervision; or,
  • An individual who has completed an apprenticeship program; or,
  • An individual who has the knowledge and skills of a journeyman and directly supervises construction projects; or,
  • An individual who is currently a licensed California contractor, a former California contractor, personnel of record on a California license, or out-of-state licensed contractor.  A contractor has the skills necessary to manage the daily activities of a construction business, including field supervision; or,
  • Be a self-employed individual having the knowledge and skills of a journeyman as previously listed and the skills necessary to manage the daily activities of a construction business, including field observation.
Any one of the above must be merely “certified” as being true by a former employer, fellow employee, journeyman, union representative, contractor, business associate, or a client if the applicant was is or was self-employed.  The latter must have had “personal knowledge” of the applicant’s qualification.
Thereafter, the applicant for the C-16 Fire Protection Contractor’s license takes an examination, and if successful, is licensed for two-years.  Renewal is subject to the payment of a prescribed fee, and continuing education is not required for renewal.  The applicant can also prepare himself or herself for the written examination by taking one of many “crash courses” prior to the examination.
Is this process really providing for a skilled and experienced workforce?  Is the actual installer of the fire suppression system benefiting from his or her company having only one individual of the company who actually demonstrated they could have some qualification, if that illustrated above actually demonstrates skill and knowledge?  No continuing education?  How do they keep up with the ever-evolving codes and standards?
A company could essentially have the one required individual holding the C-16 Fire Protection Contractor license based in San Diego, have projects north in Eureka, yet never actually visit the project.  Where is the oversight while the fire suppression life safety system is being installed?  Would anyone ever know if it were installed incorrectly?  Is this properly protecting the end user?
Proposed Legislation to Provide for Qualified Sprinkler Fitters
In 2009, the Sprinkler Fitters Association of California (SFAC) sponsored AB 660, a legislative bill that would require training and testing for installers and maintainers of fire suppression life safety systems.  Not only does AB 660 require training, it requires testing and continuing education.  Those objecting to required training, testing, and continuing education refer to it as a “union” bill in a desperate attempt to distract those who may support a skilled workforce.
Those in opposition continue this rhetoric regardless that AB 660 recognizes the nonunion AFSA Sprinkler Fitter Apprenticeship Program, or any other state’s approved sprinkler fitter apprenticeship program for that matter.  Oddly enough, the AFSA and others continue to oppose AB 660, claiming it to be a “union” bill, which is obviously misguided.
Recently, however a request was made to the Department of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS), pursuant to the California Public Records Act seeking training records of the four state-approved sprinkler fitter apprenticeship-training programs from 1999 to 2008.  Records reveal that since 2003, the nonunion AFSA state-approved sprinkler fitter apprenticeship-training program has been considerably underutilized.  Records show a significant decrease in both enrollment and in the number of graduates each year.  Nonetheless, lobbyists for the AFSA continue to testify that it supports sprinkler fitter training at legislative hearings on AB 660, in spite of this significant drop in participation.  
The following demonstrates the underutilization of the AFSA state-approved sprinkler fitter apprenticeship program:
2003 275/6 482/85
2004 333/5 521/71
2005 259/4 593/40
2006 206/7 626/74
2007 224/8 731/24
2008 213/16 698/67
Why the lack of enrollees and graduates from the statewide AFSA state-approved apprenticeship training programs?  During a meeting last year, a lobbyist for AFSA stated that if they (nonunion sprinkler fitters) complete an apprenticeship-training program, they expect an increase in hourly wages and benefits.  
Not only does the AFSA believe that placing an employee in the apprenticeship- training program is cost-prohibitive, they believe that the training requirements proposed in AB 660 will prevent sprinkler fitters from working while in the program.
However, the AFSA state-approved apprenticeship program, coined as, “Training Made Easy, The AFSA Way”, is a correspondence training program that incorporates on-the-job work experience with sprinkler fitter coursework.  AB 660 will permit sprinkler fitter apprentices to install, maintain, and test fire suppression systems provided they are actively enrolled in a state-approved apprenticeship-training program.  But, regardless of the availability of state-approved sprinkler fitter apprenticeship-training programs, California continues to have no requirements that sprinkler fitters enroll or graduate from any program, and those who oppose AB 660 want to keep it that way.
While California does require those who install fire suppression systems “be knowledgeable and experienced”, there are no specific requirements that individual installers demonstrate they are “knowledgeable and experienced.”  California’s requirements are weak and unenforceable, to say the least, which ultimately affects first responders and occupants of buildings who may find themselves in need of an operable fire suppression life safety system.
Many other states and local communities have various licensing or certification requirements that are intended to reduce the risk that a fire suppression life safety system is installed incorrectly.  Such requirements for some variation of sprinkler fitter licensing or certification exists in Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Denver, and Philadelphia.
What Those Who Oppose Required Sprinkler Fitter Training Say
Those opposed to sprinkler fitter certification in California cite, among other things, the following reasons AB 660 should fail:
1] The State Fire Marshal does not have the resources to enforce such a requirement
The State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO), for decades has administered and enforced similar licensing, certification, registration, and product listing programs similar to that proposed in AB 660.  The funding source for the administration and enforcement of these programs come not from the taxpayer, but from the user themselves, otherwise known as “special funds”.  State Fire Marshal special funded programs include fireworks and firework operators; flamethrower devices and operators; fire extinguisher technicians; flame retardant applicators, fabrics, and chemicals; hazardous liquid pipeline safety operators; vapor recovery systems; automatic fixed system maintenance and testing technicians; firefighter and fire officer training; and, building materials.  
Some of the latter State Fire Marshal programs are generously funded through its Licensing and Certification Fund 102, a special fund administered and utilized by the State Fire Marshal to offset administration and enforcement costs.  AB 660 directs all fees collected from users (sprinkler fitters) of the program to be deposited into Fund 102 to offset any administration and enforcement costs that may arise from sprinkler fitter certification, including the regulatory development of the program itself.  
Under AB 660, enforcement at the local level can be as little, or as much as determined by the local fire authorities.  Enforcement can be simply verifying at the project site that each installer has a valid State Fire Marshal Sprinkler Fitter Certification card, or actually assisting the State Fire Marshal as it investigates complaints.  
2] Fire departments must give final inspection on fire sprinkler systems.  Any defects with the installation would be discovered at this time
Fire departments no longer have adequate financial resources to fund inspections for the various stages of the installation of the fire suppression system.  These are trying financial times for California fire departments, where some are now only able to conduct the final acceptance inspection for the newly installed fire suppression life safety system.  The only impact AB 660 would have upon the local fire authority?  They would only need to look at the sprinkler fitter’s state certification card, which verifies that the State Fire Marshal has already determined that the holder is qualified to install fire suppression life safety systems.
Those who oppose AB 660 contend that if something was installed incorrectly, it would be found at the time of inspection.  Is this true?  Would a final acceptance inspection actually detect a defectively installed fire suppression system?  The answer is no.  
Many installation defects can actually go undetected, regardless of inspection.  The fire suppression life safety system may pass a final inspection; yet continue to be defective until such time the system is needed.  If, for example a sprinkler head were blocked with glue or debris, the pressure tests and flow would not detect the blockage.  Yet, in the time of need, that sprinkler head would not properly deliver the necessary water to contain the fire.  This is just one example of defects that cannot be detected from a final inspection acceptance test.
3] Fire sprinkler systems are already reviewed and approved by registered engineers
While California requires the design of a fire suppression system be reviewed and approved by a registered engineer, more often than not, it is the sprinkler fitter who must make adjustments in the field.  The design of a fire suppression system not always takes into consideration other components of a building, such as electrical conduit, mechanical ducts, plumbing, or other building equipment.  Often the sprinkler fitter will find that the design and fabrication of pipe does not consider other builder service equipment and infrastructure.  Or, a mistake in the design was made and not addressed during plan review.  Thus, the sprinkler fitter must make adjustments to the design of the fire suppression system in the field so that it can be installed.  It takes considerable training and experience to do this in order to have a working fire suppression life safety system. 
So what does Sprinkler Fitter Certification really mean?  It means that the individual who actually installs fire suppression life safety systems have demonstrated to the satisfaction of the State Fire Marshal they have completed an approved apprenticeship program and passed the state examination, or are currently enrolled in a state-approved sprinkler fitter apprenticeship program.  Thereafter, the qualified sprinkler fitter will carry a state certification to make available to local fire officials upon request, and will identify them as meeting all terms and conditions for installing fire suppression life safety systems in the state of California.
Could a trained and qualified sprinkler fitter make a mistake?  Sure, however having trained sprinkler fitters would significantly reduce the risk or likelihood that a fire suppression life safety system is defectively installed.  This is true for all professions.  
So why would anyone oppose a training requirement for those who install equipment of which sole purpose is to protect life and property?
Randy D. Roxson served 30 years in the fire service before retiring from the California State Fire Marshal’s Office, where he attained the rank of Assistant Deputy Director, Chief of State Fire Marshal Operations.  He began his firefighting career in the United States Air Force, and upon his honorable discharge after serving four years, became a firefighter in California.  In 1982 he became a Deputy State Fire Marshal with the California State Fire Marshal’s Office, where he advanced to Division Chief, and then to Chief of State Fire Marshal Operations.
Randy is a 1997 graduate of a California POST Basic police academy, and has an Associate in Arts degree in Fire Technology; a Bachelor in Arts degree in Political Science; and a Juris Doctorate degree.  He has been a member of the State Bar of California and the 9th Circuit of the Federal Court, Eastern District since 1996.
Randy practices law with The Law Office of Randall D. Roxson, which is focused on fire and explosion litigation (i.e., personal injury, wrongful death, premises liability, and products liability), government relations, and trademark registration.  
Randy is also a registered legislative advocate in California and in Washington, DC.  Randy’s clients include the USA Sprinkler Fitters Association and the Sprinkler Fitters Association of California.  The Law Office of Randall D. Roxson can be found at www.firelawlawyer.com
Randy is Principal/General Counsel for Fire Design Inc., a consulting firm that, among other things, provides forensic fire expert and litigation consulting services.  He is a Certified Fire & Explosion Investigator (CFEI) and is a member of numerous fire organizations.  Fire Design Inc. can be found at www.firedesignconsulting.com
Last Updated on Monday, 24 May 2010 13:41