Path to Washington fire life safety legislation packed with strategy, hard work

When going into any large project, a plan makes life infinitely easier. For years, Steve Musser, business agent for Western Washington Sheet Metal Local 66, was in search of a plan to get fire life safety legislation passed in his city, county or state. He just needed a strategy.

Ever since the first fire life safety class was held in Washington in 2015, leaders looked for a way. Like other cities, counties and states that have passed such legislation, it was approached as a public safety issue. Fire and smoke dampers keep smoke from traveling from room to room — and more importantly from areas of egress or exit paths — allowing occupants a way out and first responders a safe way in. If they’re not inspected, they fail. And as seen in the MGM Fire in Las Vegas 40 years ago this year, dysfunctional fire and smoke dampers take lives. (Read the report here.)

In 2017, Scott Hammond, director of research for the National Energy Management Institute Committee (NEMIC) discovered the city of Seattle had implemented a high-rise building fire life safety program, and he called Musser. They had found their opening.

Musser and Hammond called in Cody Arledge, Local 66 lobbyist and former firefighter, and met at the 2018 ICB/TABB (International Certification Board/Testing, Adjusting and Balancing Bureau) Conference in Sacramento, California, to develop a plan. By the next year’s conference in Seattle, the plan was coming together. At the core of it, it was simple — get every affected group and organization on board. Easier said than done.

“There are two worlds you have to satisfy — political and affected affiliates,” said Tim Carter, business manager for Local 66. “These guys put in a ton of work. It’s unusual to go unanimous …and not have any opposition.”

The lack of opposition was the benefit of careful strategy, developing every level of support to create a strong base.

The first order of business was to garner the support of the Washington State Building Trades’ Mark Riker, the Washington State Labor Council and the Western Washington Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ Association (SMACNA) and its president Tom Montgomery. Instead of waiting until the verbiage was written, all the kinks were worked out in this step, allowing for transparency and strong support from the beginning.

“(Montgomery) brought a lot to the party,” Carter said. “He also represents the largest HVAC contractor in the country and comes from a service background, so he was able to also speak as an expert.”

From there, they sought out non-union HVAC contractors, other building trades crafts and anyone who could possibly oppose the legislation.

“Cody was good at making it not a labor bill. It was a public safety bill,” Musser said.

“We didn’t try to hide anything from any possible stakeholder,” Arledge added. “It worked well because that’s how everyone viewed it. It didn’t raise any flags for the Republicans because they also saw it as public safety legislation, not as a labor bill.”

In 2019, New Mexico was the first state to pass statewide fire life safety legislation, and that experience was presented at the 2019 ICB/TABB Conference. Local 66 leaders used the conference to gather information — and contractors — to illustrate exactly how statewide legislation would work. And they picked up additional traction.

“That’s when it finally started clicking and we said, ‘Maybe we can do this statewide,’” Arledge said. “It certainly helped to have bipartisan sponsors.”

Statewide meant getting Local 55 in Eastern Washington on board in addition to others on that side of the state. Once Musser checked that box, the verbiage was written, and another strategic yet bold move was made. While New Mexico and Nevada legislation required inspections by technicians certified by American National Standards Institute (ANSI)-accredited programs, which ICB is, the Washington language specifically incorporated both, requiring ICB- and ANSI-certified technicians to do the inspections.

And they met no opposition.

“We knew we could take it out if we had to, but we didn’t hear much about it,” Arledge added. “If it came up as an issue, we knew we didn’t hide the ball from anyone.”

At the end, the legislation was introduced Jan. 20; unanimously passed the House Feb. 12; unanimously passed the Senate on March 5, and Gov. Jay Inslee signed it on March 19. The legislation requires inspections by ICB-certified Fire and Smoke Damper or Smoke Control System technicians every four years for fire and smoke dampers and every six months to one year, depending on the system, for smoke control systems in accordance with the International Fire Code.

Legislation will take effect on July 1, 2021.

“Passing legislation is like a political campaign,” Arledge said. “In my experience, it’s all about the coalitions you build and how you communicate with them.”

Having good coaches who had helped to pass legislation before also helped propel the cause through the finish line.

“If you want to pass similar legislation, engage with Scott Hammond, Soph Davenberry and NEMIC, because they’ve been involved in victories in other places,” Carter said. “They were like coaches all the way through it.”

“They had a game plan,” Hammond added. “They went in strategically and came out on top.”

For information on how to pass fire life safety legislation in your city, county or state, send an email to Scott Hammond at shammond@nemiconline.org.

NEMIC is a not-for-profit organization jointly funded by SMACNA national and SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. NEMIC identifies opportunities, seeking to create or expand employment for SMART members and programs that assist SMACNA contractors.

For more information on these opportunities in the sheet metal and air conditioning industry, contact NEMIC at www.TABBcertified.org or call 800-458-6525.

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