Just stop for one moment and think: How has the fire alarm/life safety industry changed over the years? Personally, I did not have much knowledge of this industry until 9/11 occurred. Before the attacks on the U.S., the job market across all industries was booming for engineers; however, after 9/11, it seemed that the only companies actively hiring were in the life safety and security sectors. Thanks to my background in electronics and communications, I was hired as a consultant by a life safety company; it was there that I gained a basic understanding of the fire alarm industry.
Ever since I joined the field, I noticed it was growing. One driver for this development was new mandates enacted by industry leaders that required businesses to comply with safety mandates such as campus-wide mass communication systems (brought about by tragedies such as the Virginia Tech and Columbine shootings). As this growth occurred, however, there was not a simultaneous increase in the number of workers in the industry; in other words, the demand for life safety technology outgrew the market’s ability to supply it. There was a shortage of in-house employees everywhere, and outsourcing to contractors became much more common.
In fact, I can say this without a doubt: Outsourcing for fire alarm engineering designs is becoming more common in today’s fire alarm industry. I planned to retire in June of last year from my fire alarm design engineer position at M.C. Dean, Inc., and become a stay-at-home mom, but my phone would not stop ringing and my email inbox kept filling up. There was such a huge demand from fire alarm suppliers and other engineering companies who did not have enough employees to get their workloads completed. As a result, I couldn’t get away from it and ultimately decided to postpone my retirement. By that following August, I had opened up a limited liability company, or LLC, that provides fire alarm system drawings, construction specifications, system calculations and much more.
Let’s explore why fire alarm suppliers are coming in droves to fire alarm system designers like me:
- We’re less costly: Suppliers don’t have to hire me full time or pay me when I’m sick or on holiday, nor provide me with costly benefits. Sometimes I will work from 9 a.m. one day to 3 a.m. the next day, and I’m not paid overtime. When the work is done, it’s done, and I’m off their books. These suppliers can keep their resources available for more long-term projects. Engineering firms that don’t do a lot of fire alarm work can ask me to handle that portion of a project for them without long-term commitments to a resource that may not be used very often.
- Ability to travel: When I travel, my expenses are included in the budgeted cost and I make the arrangements myself. Often, a company has a difficult time parting with their in-house resources for any significant length of time to travel to off-site locations. I am able to jump in my truck or hop on a plane and get to a remote job site for them, and they get to keep their in-house resources available nearby.
- We provide our own resources: Suppliers don’t have to provide me with a computer, software or training. I am available to them ready to go, without the need to source the job. I am fully certified and I have my own code books, too.
- We can start right away: Let’s say it’s Friday morning and a project needs to be done by Monday. The supplier’s staff is already busy working on existing projects, so the company shoots me an email to see if I can get the work done by deadline. If available, an outside contractor can start right away and work through the weekend (without the supplier having to pay weekend or overtime pay) to complete the project.
- We often know multiple systems: I haven’t met an independent contractor yet that didn’t know or have strong familiarity with at least three different manufacturers or lines of equipment. My ability to develop drawings for many different types of systems gives my customers more flexibility with which projects they bid, design, or equipment they choose to provide.
Without a doubt, there’s been a shortage of in-house fire-alarm designers, which is why I’ve had plenty of business with overflow work since last year. My retirement will just have to wait for now.
About the Author
Traci L. Imhoff is the owner, consultant and fire alarm systems designer of Tracker Fire, which provides fire alarm system drawings, construction specifications, system calculations, code consulting, estimating, third-party reviews, proposal assistance, AutoCAD drafting services and bid services. She is a BSEET graduate with a solid background in fire alarm system design, electronics engineering, and project work. Imhoff is a certified engineering technologist and is certified for NICET Level III Fire Alarm Systems.