FAULT TOLERANCE – Where Do You Draw the Line?

December, 2010 - by Frank Kurz

We live in an age of computers and so-called smart devices.  I remember another age (all right, what you’re about to read is going to really date me).  I remember muscle cars and eight tracks and, more often than not, you’d hear the “Hippy Hippy Shake” when you tuned in to your favourite radio station.  Turning the key of my 1968 Buick Skylark would trigger a simple relay to switch current to the starter and an ignition coil would provide the spark to make the beast purr.  A lamp on a smoke detector card in an Edwards 6500 that didn’t work, meant you’d plug in a new one.  Troubleshooting a problem was simple and didn’t involve fancy diagnostic computers, USB ports, software, downloading, and plug and play.  It either worked or it didn’t.

As we move deeper into the digital age, we’ve come to expect a certain number of glitches and blue screen errors, all of which got me to thinking about how far we’ve progressed (or regressed).  As I write this (on my laptop), I’m waiting for my desktop computer to restart.  For some reason it’s taking inordinately long considering the computer’s pedigree (the “Ultimate” behind “Windows 7” really stands for “ultimately frustrating”, so be warned).  Manufacturers want you to believe that we’re all benefiting from the marvellous technical advances they’ve achieved.  Lawnmowers that start with one pull and the like.  In his youth, my dad used the people-powered version, called a scythe.  You sharpened the sucker on your favourite whetstone and away you went.  Simple.  Effective.  And green!

These days we’ve all developed a high degree of “fault tolerance”.  We wait patiently while our computer screen tells us Windows is updating (or in my case – restarting) which is why you’ve caught me reflecting on the fact that there are a few jobs out there where faults and error screens aren’t tolerated - like life safety equipment or its service.  The numbers of faulty inspections and bogus verifications that have recently come to light have demonstrated to me that our industry needs an enema.  We need to flush the bad players out so we can focus on delivering on what we (as committed professionals) have all promised to the various communities we serve: Life Safety.

In a recent conversation I had with a manufacturer's rep, it was suggested that I stop assuming the role of a policeman.  My first reaction was:  Who, me?  He went on to say that I could (should) work with certain other individuals rather than be at loggerheads, unnecessarily confrontational, and a troublemaker.  I reminded him that as a fire alarm verifier, I have an obligation to report deviations in an installation and that the Standards to which I work (the very same ones certain others deliberately ignore) don't allow me the luxury of choosing what is acceptable in order to smooth the way for the Contractor (or individual) that hired me.  He went on to describe a whole host of errors he continues to witness in numerous installations he's seen across Canada, and then remarked how he couldn't understand what was so different about British Columbia (and particularly Vancouver).  He stated he'd never encountered a market that was so (in his view) intensely combative.

The reason is simple.   “As plain as the nose on your face” (to quote a common turn of phrase).  Vancouver happens to be one of a few Lower Mainland jurisdictions that have adopted by-laws

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December, 2010



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requiring ASTTBC certified technicians.  Those technicians are all subject to a Code of Ethics that isn't just a guideline but is actually enforced (even those registered technicians that work in non-ASTTBC communities are sometimes surprised by the fact that this organization has the power to actually police their work).  An increasing number of RFPT's are taking their own employers to task when asked to perform work that might put them in conflict with the practice guidelines.  Some take exception to the shoddy work they see their fellow RFPT's doing and view the bending of rules just as unacceptable as I do.  Vancouver (and the Lower Mainland) is the crucible for change so the market here has become, quite naturally, a little more "heated".  Some (like me) would actually go so far as to term this an improvement, by the way.

2011 will herald a number of changes in the industry.  ULC will be publishing updated Standards for Installation, Testing and Verification of Fire Alarm Systems.  They’ll also be releasing some new Standards (chief amongst them deals with self-illuminated exits and the commissioning of new fire alarm systems).

I’m certain that 2011 will see some major changes in the fire protection landscape in the Lower Mainland as well.  The positive steps we take will ensure the safety of the communities here and, hopefully, will also serve as a model for the other Provinces across our nation.  We’re the last Province in Canada to see the sun rise, but will be the one to take that first step into the new dawn.  Sound too poetic for you?  Chalk it up to breathing too much premium leaded gas fumes in my youth.


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