Fire & Life Safety: Stay in School

Aug. 5, 2014
How to break into the K-12 fire systems market

Parts of our country are experiencing a construction boom in the school market, which is natural considering that many schools were built after WWII to accommodate the baby-boomer generation. Consolidation, lack of energy efficiency, and the higher maintenance costs associated with older buildings has made new construction necessary in many areas.

Here’s a question that came to me from a fire alarm integrator trying to take advantage of the boom:

Q. Our local school system needs a quote to provide a fire alarm system to three new school buildings they will build to replace older buildings that are no longer usable. Our quote will be used to determine their budget allowance for the project. These will be the largest buildings we have ever worked in — do you have any ideas on how to make our bid stand out, or pitfalls we should know about?

This will be a good project for a smaller company like yours for several reasons. First, it may be your foot in the door for further work on cameras, security alarms and access control systems. Even better for a small company like yours, is that this client plans to tear down and construct only one building at a time. This one-at-a-time process will provide the least amount of disruption to their staff and students, and will make allocating labor and other costs for the fire alarm projects more manageable for your company.

A pitfall, of sorts, is that you cannot shut your doors while working on big projects that come your way. Your existing customers, as well as new customers, must still be taken care of as if they were your only — and best — clients. If you cannot take on these occasional, larger jobs from time to time, you will not grow your company into a successful thriving business. You are not a “business owner” if you just keep busy with regular, steady work — you just ‘own a job.’

Take Time to Learn

This multi-system project will be a stepping stone for your company. If you can handle this project, you will gain insight into a market niche that is not nearly as complicated as Institutional Occupancies, such as prisons/jails or healthcare facilities.

The school administrators you are working with attend the same meetings with their counterparts in other school districts — they can talk you up, or talk you down. Impress them by keeping them updated on your progress, and make sure you attend all the contractor meetings, where you will learn the politics and culture of the construction industry just by sitting back, listening and keeping your mouth shut.

When asked about your schedule, tell them how the architect, electrician, HVAC contractor or construction foreman has already provided you with the information and the open communication you require to stay ahead of the project (be ahead). If everyone sees you as a team player, they will want you on their team again. If you encounter any issues, ask for a sit-down with the project manager.

Be honest, and maybe ask for their advice. This is your contact on the job. Attempting to go around this person could be a mistake.

Take Advantage of Dual-Use Technology

Offer to locate an annunciator and controls in a secure location of the fire department’s choosing; and go to the local fire department and tell the chief you want to make sure the school system will provide the kind of information they want, where they want it.

Per the 2012 IBC, all new construction of schools must use an Emergency Voice/Alarm Communication (EVAC) system as the basis for their fire alarm systems. Tap the EVAC manufacturer’s rep for advice on amplifier size and other options. This may give you a chance to shine since the school may also use your EVAC equipment as their speaker system for regular announcements. The cost that is saved by the school district by not having a separate ‘PA’ system may make them glad they had you on board.

This PA feature is not totally “free,” because you will have to add the cost of control switches to provide them with the ability to select individual classrooms or areas. If you are providing tornado warnings and regular announcements, your speakers/strobes will not be able to have the word “FIRE” printed on them. Rely on your manufacturer’s representative for design guidance and equipment selection; that’s their job.

Communication during any of these steps can make all the difference. For example, you cannot provide fire alarm features the first responders want if they don’t know what options and features are available. The factory rep cannot give you part numbers if he doesn’t know a remote microphone has been requested by the local fire department. Consider asking the factory rep to go along with you when see the fire chief.

Once you get a real feel for school construction projects, including the culture and politics involved, you just might decide to stay in school.

Greg Kessinger is SD&I’s fire alarm and codes expert and a regular contributor. Please email him your fire & life safety questions at [email protected].