June 12, 2010 - By Frank Kurz
Vancouver - Arkady Tsisserev had been fighting a one man battle with City Hall and as it has been proven over and over again; you can’t win this kind of fight. Without regurgitating all the “he said, she said” stuff, let’s just say that he lost his job because he was doing his job... the only way he knew how... without compromise.
But the war continues on another front. The City of Vancouver Manager’s Office may once have clouded the battlefield with smoke rings of Olympic proportions, but now that they’ve blown clear, we can finally get down to business. I’m talking the life safety business (and some of these issues aren' t exclusive to Vancouver alone).
There are several things which continue to trouble me (and some new ones too).
- Why is it that the only individual with any media connections that really gave a damn in all of this has been Alex Tsakumis? A lot of you are probably asking: “Who the heck is THAT guy?” Well, he’s probably got one of the most widely read political blogs (and commentary) in the country (www.alexgtsakumis.com) and he’s also got a reputation for getting the meat on a story. Where was the main stream media in all this and where are they now?
- Why has the Mayor’s Office not responded to the concerns industry experts, stakeholders, and some common folk have expressed over the appointment of a STRUCTURAL engineer as City Electrician? The letters and emails which flooded City Hall in the wake of Ark Tsisserev's unceremonious and illegal dismissal must have filled several binders, yet no word has been drafted in response.
- What exactly has Mr. Johnston been up to these days in his new official capacity which, oddly enough, doesn’t show up anywhere on Vancouver’s website (there’s a Deputy Electrical Safety Manager, but where is THE Electrical Safety Manager or City Electrician)? What policies has he established if an inspector has concerns regarding a building’s fire alarm verification (let alone other issues that may arise)? What Bulletins has he drafted? Has he made himself available for discussions with his staff? Is he capable of providing the direction and leadership the Electrical Branch needs? Ark left a pair of Mammoth sized shoes to fill! Would he extend resources to those same inspectors to help them in identifying a properly completed verification report or resolve any of their other concerns?
- On which files has he actually had to retain “third party consultation” in the permit approval or plan checking process? Mr. McLellan stated in a recent news article that Mr. Johnston would do so if the need arose. Has Mr. Johnston actually signed off on anything as the City Electrician? Attended any meetings of Electrical Regulators in which he represented his department (or Vancouver) as the City Electrician?
- I’ve recently reported on a botched annual inspection performed by technicians in the employ of Active Fire and Safety Services Ltd. of Surrey, B. C. (You can view the details HERE). What action has Mr. Johnston taken to ensure the integrity of any Verifications performed in Vancouver by anyone with Active Fire? Has he contacted any building officials in other Lower Mainland jurisdictions (or visa-versa)? This is a step Ark would not have been reticent about - not so much to advise the other jurisdictional authorities of Vancouver's experience with this company, but more to confirm a "common threat" or link to the issue in order to formulate an appropriate response. Ark (as a recognized electrical expert) had estabished (and maintains to this day) an excellent rapport with other electrical inspectors and electrical department heads across the country.
- Why is it that I’m not quite as confident in the fire alarm Verifications performed at the Olympic Village as I should be (or indeed in any other jurisdiction in the Province)? Could it be because the Verification Certificates (in which Dr. Ballem has put so much store) don’t properly document that testing? Dr. Ballem is apparently oblivious to the fact that the Standard for Verification (CAN/ULC-S537-04) makes absolutely no reference to a requirement for a Verification Certificate and that (more importantly), without the correct documentation actually specified in the referenced Standard, the Verification itself could be considered meaningless. There are many Verification Agencies in the Lower Mainland that seem to think that providing the Appendix “C” document, which Ark had taken great pains to redraft in a format acceptable to Vancouver (and which many local municipalities have also adopted), along with a list of the tested devices, is sufficient to meet the Standard (in many such cases, the Verification Certificate actually forms the “first page” of their efforts). By now you should be asking yourself: If the documentation doesn’t meet the required criteria, is it remotely possible that the actual testing wasn’t performed to the Standard either? Just how SAFE are the buildings we have all come to know as the “Olympic Village”? In fact – how safe is ANY building in the Lower Mainland (or the Province for that matter) where fire alarm systems have recently been Verified by these non-conforming agencies (and in which most of the required aspects of this crucial test haven't been properly documented)?
- I’ve also recently reviewed a Verification Report for a fire alarm upgrade in Vancouver in which the entire document was formatted using the 1997 version of the annual fire alarm test report! Since then we’ve had several amendments of even that Standard (technicians performing this testing should be using CAN/ULC-S536-04). Active Fire and Safety was involved (again) as the primary contractor and as such, had to rely on another agency to fulfill the Verification Testing requirements. This particular Verifying Agency didn't identify several incorrectly installed smoke detectors, and made other errors too numerous to mention here. To cap it all off, they failed to document the testing of several critical fire alarm system components. This particular report was (thankfully) rejected and I'm given to understand that a number of the installation errors have been corrected but it still raises several questions: Has the Verifying Agency on this project submitted reports in a similarly unacceptable format on buildings in other jurisdictions? What else did they miss out reporting on? If Active Fire, as both the primary contractor and an Approved Verifying Agency, bore the responsibility for the correct installation of the equipment, how could such blatant violations of the Installation and Verification Standards occur in the first place?
Alarm bells are going off at City Hall and Mr. Johnston, Mr. McLellan and Dr. Ballem keep pushing the signal silence button in the vain hope that they’ll go away. Every concern mentioned here would have been addressed by Arkady Tsisserev had they occured "on his watch". In fact, Ark always kept his door “open”, not only to the inspectors which reported to him (he still fondly refers to them as my guys whenever I talk to him), but to anyone that had a question, concern, or simply wanted to discuss a Code or Standard issue.
When are people going to wake up and smell the coffee? You have one fire equipment service contractor (headed by an ASTTBC RFPT no less) involved in repeated complaints of unacceptable behaviour and not even the organization tasked with technician oversight (ASTTBC) can touch them. Then you have another organization clearing this same contractor to perform Verifications on new fire alarm installations. Now, many critics will be swift to point out that it was Ark that appointed technicians at Active Fire to the list in the first place, but I know for a fact that he would have acted just as swiftly to remove those same individuals had he any doubts concerning either their integrity or their commitment to the public’s welfare (I’m certain that the recent examples I’ve cited would have been sufficient to ensure their immediate excision).
An example of Ark in action (in fact I consider this to be one of his most shining moments) involved an issue with GE Security (now Chubb Edwards), who happens to manufacture one of the most respected and widely used lines of fire alarm control products on the market today. They have consistently invested huge sums and committed vast resources into the research and development (R & D) of new technology and products. In fact, up until Ark publicly revealed its Achilles Heel, I had always considered the EST-3 to be the best engineered fire alarm system out there. No other panel manufactured today has demonstrated quite the reaction to RF interference from hand-held radios as has been discovered when you get within a few feet of any EST-3 panel. All sorts of weird things start happening: several LED's might illuminate sporatically, and at the worst the system will display a “rail fault” which will initiate an automatic reset. When this happens you lose all the pertinent information regarding the alarm or supervisory condition you’ve been called in to investigate. This frustrates your average Fire Fighter to no end and it could also wind up hampering his ability to respond to a genuine emergency. Ark took the immediate and extraordinary step of contacting ULC (the body which certifies all life safety equipment in Canada) to investigate this problem and specifically clear the panel for installation in Vancouver (and other cities in Canada as well) when he was first informed of it in an email from another jurisdiction's electrical department head. ULC and GE Security participated jointly in the detailed investigation which was prioritized because of the critical need to clear several systems at the Olympic Village for immediate occupancy in order to meet Vanoc's agenda.* The rhetoric which Dr. Ballem decided would rescue Vision’s ham-fisted dismissal of a true National Treasure (and her involvement in it) included a reference to a letter which Ark was required to sign as part of his severance package (and which was drafted by a Lawyer working for the City). In the media flurry that followed its release, a lot of people missed seeing the fact that even before SHE expressed any concern over the issue (or had any knowledge of it); Ark had already taken the necessary technical and logistical steps to ensure the systems all passed muster (which was also his responsibility as the Council appointed City Electrician).
Ark remains the life safety industry’s champion (as well as an incredible resource). Unfortunately he’s no longer in a position (as a Regulator) to be able to affect the changes necessary to keep us all safe (he can initiate the alarm, but he can’t deal with the issues that lead up to it, or the consequences). Will Johnston now has that role at the City of Vancouver and it’s been made perfectly obvious to this writer that he’s reluctant to exercise his power (either through plain inability or an over-whelming fear of going on record and possibly facing being challenged). He’s clearly out of his depth.
It’s obvious to me (and a number of other individuals) that an ELECTRICAL expert should be heading the ELECTRICAL inspections department at the City of Vancouver. Someone like Ark for instance… Perhaps the Mayor should consider dusting off that employment advertisement to which Ark responded in 1993. That’s when the THEN SITTING Mayor and Council understood the fundamental fact that you need an expert in Electrical Safety (with professional credentials in Electrical Engineering) to provide the necessary leadership and guidance to ensure the public’s safety isn't compromised. The Electrical Inspections Branch of the City of Vancouver set the standard for excellence in electrical and life safety on a national level under Arkady Tsisserev’s expert stewardship. Ark developed the criteria for acceptance of individuals approved to provide Fire Alarm Verification testing that continues to serve as a model for a number of communities across the Lower Mainland (and the nation).
Ark’s as yet unsatisfactorily explained termination has diminished Vancouver's national standing and has eroded the confidence of stakeholders, industry experts, and the public. For the first time since 1927 (a year that happens to coincide with the first edition of the Canadian Electrical Code), Vancouver doesn’t have a voice (and isn’t participating as a municipal partner) on the Canadian Code Committee!
And all this for what? Some illusion that the City will “save money”? That “restructuring” will improve service and the safety of Vancouver’s citizens? All the rhetoric from City Hall that’s been spun to justify Arkady Tsisserev’s dismissal can be crystallized into one immortal line from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (a fine play which, if memory serves, also features back-stabbing):
“... A tale told by an Idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
And that’s the real tragedy in all this.
NOTE: We've put together an informative presentation to assist regulatory authorities in vetting a Fire Alarm Verification Report. Details are HERE. A sample Verification Report Form can be downloaded HERE. If you wish to comment on this story, or require additional information, please email me at the link below.
* NOTE: As a result of ULC's investigation, First Responders are required to maintain up to a one metre clearance between any hand-held radio and the EST-3 common control and annunciator. Appropriate instructions must also be posted.
Related stories and articles on this site:
In case you missed it, you can read my "Message to the Mayor and Council" HERE!
There's a previous Editorial HERE.
February 2010 had one news item located HERE.
Another news article from March 2010 is located HERE.
An April 2010 Tech-News item can be found HERE.
A Tech-News Special Report is located HERE.
Another Tech-News EXTRA! is located HERE.
There are also several FAQ's regarding Fire Alarm Verification and Annual Testing you might be interested in reading.
Related articles and Bulletins on other sites:
ULC Standards Bulletin
CFAA Position Paper
Individual members will receive Fire Technicians Network shoulder patches which they can wear as a visible demonstration of their commitment to the higher standard. You'll also enjoy access to manuals and the resources you need to shift your career into high gear. Our goal is help you improve your knowledge and skillset and, ultimately, your own community's LIFE SAFETY standards. Remember:
We are not a professional union but together, we are a union of professionals!