New Mexico, Nevada, Illinois and Washington are the only states that have introduced and successfully passed legislation that requires training or certification to perform periodic inspections of fire dampers, smoke dampers and smoke control systems. The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) workers, represented by members at Local 23, is hoping to add Alaska to that exclusive club.
For the last several years, Local 23 Organizer Jens Schurig and SMART Northwest Regional Council (NWRC) Regional Manager Randy Golding have been working behind the scenes to educate members of the Alaska House and Senate about the need for training and certification for individuals performing this important work and why it is a public safety issue.
Working closely with House and Senate members, the two were able to draft and introduce legislation that would require ISO/IEC 17024 certified technicians, mechanical engineers or fire prevention engineers to perform periodic smoke damper, fire damper and smoke control system inspections. The culmination of their hard work is Alaska House Bill 218 and its companion Senate Bill 169.
The bipartisan House legislation is sponsored by Rep. Chris Tuck, majority leader; Rep. Steve Thompson; Rep. Ken McCarty; and Rep. David Nelson. Senate Bill 169, also bipartisan, is sponsored by Sen. Mia Costello, Republican majority whip, and Sen. Tom Begich, Democratic minority leader.
“We spent more than two years meeting with and educating senators and representatives and their respective staff members on the importance of this legislation,” explained Schurig. “I spent a week with Sen. Costello’s chief of staff and by the end of the week she was as vocal on the issue as any of us.”
Since HB 218’s introduction, the bill has progressed to the House State Affairs Committee, where it was presented on March 15 for further discussion. At this hearing, Schurig testified and answered questions posed by the representatives examining the bill.
During his testimony, Schurig made clear that the legislation is a “public safety bill, not a labor bill and not a union bill.”
Relaying his experience in the field, Schurig told the committee, “I have tested myself thousands of smoke dampers and the vast majority of them are not working. I’ve been to a small rural hospital in Alaska and found that of 39 dampers inspected, 37 were not functional. The motors had burned out and they were all stuck in an open position.”
Also testifying in favor of the legislation was Justin Carpenter, Local 23 member and certified technician for Cool Air Mechanical, who relayed that at one recent inspection he completed of a large hospital in a rural community, he found 105 of the 107 dampers inspected had failed. Carpenter told the committee that he saw dampers that “had not been inspected in over 30 years.”
Carpenter implored the representatives, “We need the training to have the right people get into these buildings.”
Outside of the union, licensed mechanical engineer Ben Anglen also testified in favor of the bill. Anglen said in his experience, more often than not, he sees fire dampers held open with a screw or a paperclip, placed there by an untrained worker not certified in the systems.
“They don’t understand how these dampers work,” Anglen stressed. “They don’t understand that the fusible link is meant to melt in a fire and their placing an object there to wedge it open will cause it to fail.”
In response to committee concerns that there wouldn’t be enough certified technicians to perform the work, Anglen stated there are hundreds or thousands of mechanical engineers in the state that could do the work in addition to the current 40 or so SMART members.
Schurig said Local 23 is actively recruiting their apprentices and members to get them certified in preparation for the bill to pass. The union has arranged online training and has paid for students to travel for in-person certification testing.
For now, the House committee has set aside the legislation for further consideration.
SB 169, meanwhile, has gone through hearings and passed through the Health and Human Services Committee, before being referred to the Finance Committee.
Both versions of the legislation call for periodic inspection and testing one year after initial installation for fire smoke dampers and every four years after, except for hospitals, which would require inspection and testing every six years. Also included are requirements for a biannual inspection for dedicated smoke control systems and an annual inspection for non-dedicated smoke control systems.
Schurig and Golding are optimistic but know there is a possibility the legislation may not pass this session.
“It is very frustrating to think it may not pass,” says Schurig. “Especially because this is an election year and if it fails, we will have to start all over again educating new members about why this is a public safety issue.”
Additional information can be found at www.nemionline.org or by calling 703-299-5646.