Building Official and Fire Marshal Relations: Benefitting Employees and the Community

By Steve O’Neal, CBO, Chief Building Official, City of Lubbock; and Garett Nelson, Fire Marshal, City of Lubbock

Anyone serving in a public service regulatory capacity understands that we live in a time where the public has very little patience for increasing government interference in their lives and businesses. It can be difficult for the public to understand the role we play and the value of the service we provide. Let’s face it, “it ain’t cool” to be a government regulator nowadays. Often, we have to reach down deep to find a sense of purpose, sometimes even reaching out to one another to remind us why we are here and what our mission is, hence the value of BOAT and organizations like it.
One or two slip-ups in service delivery, however, can otherwise confirm what an already skeptical public believes—correct or not—and can take years to overcome. One of the worst types of such scenarios, as well as one of the most difficult to control, is two departments with overlapping roles acting inconsistently. This often manifests itself in the dissemination of contradictory information, conflicting inspection results, or, worst-case, speaking detrimentally about one another in front of the customer, whether directly or indirectly.
Though this type of “rift” can and does occur between any number of departments, it seems to be an all-too-frequent occurrence between building and fire marshal departments. Problems both reported and observed seem to range from virtual lack of communication to disdain bordering on animosity. As the duties of these offices often overlap with respect to enforcement of fire and life safety provisions in the building and fire codes, lack of substantial coordination and cooperation between the two can create many opportunities for breakdown, which translates into conflict and confusion for the customer, bad public relations for the jurisdiction, and worst of all, a potential for failure to properly protect the public.
Jurisdictional turf wars are nothing new to large organizations, and government agencies are certainly not immune. However, building and fire marshal departments need to understand that they are both charged with fulfilling the same mission—the protection of life and property through the effective and efficient administration of fire and life safety codes. Building officials must realize that the prescriptive codes they enforce are largely grounded in the physics of fire science, fire protection technology, and the study of human tendencies that fire marshals are well-trained in. That being the case, there is much that can be learned from their fire department brethren, and they should take every opportunity to do so. Similarly, fire marshals can learn much useful information from their building officials with regard to engineering and building construction technology. The benefits to both departments from a cooperative, inclusive relationship should be obvious. The professionalism of both is increased exponentially, the public ultimately benefits, and both departments have the opportunity to shine.
The City of Lubbock, has an excellent relationship between its building and fire marshal’s departments. The departments find that continuous, candid, and respectful communication; free exchange of ideas, knowledge, and opinions; common training sessions; and joint involvement in all decisions that affect the fire and life safety mission are key to a continuing and fruitful relationship that ultimately benefits our citizens and customers. The mutual support that we gain from this relationship has repaid us time and again.

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