For more than 35 years, Richard A. Piccolo has been active in the fire protection business. Piccolo began his long career in 1970 as a shift firefighter for the Elk Grove Village (IL) Fire Department. Twenty years later, he left the department as a lieutenant and began B & F Technical Code Services, Inc., which is a company that provides a variety of services related to the various building codes: plan reviews; inspections; general code consulting; specialized plan reviews and inspections; ordinance creation, code updates and procedure creation; ISO review preparation; hydrant flow testing; employment testing; expert testimony; and training.
Over the past 17 years, B & F Technical Code Services has continued to grow. Today, a technical staff of almost 30 inspectors and plan reviewers performs examinations of plans and building sites nationwide. Through this growth, B & F has continued its devotion to education and professional standards.
Since 1990, B & F Technical Code Services has performed more than 100,000 building, plumbing, mechanical, electrical and fire suppression (sprinkler) plan reviews for municipalities nationwide. Their inspectors have conducted more than 250,000 inspections for new and existing structures. In addition, the company has provided consulting services such as system testing, code writing and adoption assistance, as well as help with projects that required special attention.
In 2000, the training aspect was committed to a subsidiary company, the Building & Fire Code Academy (BFCA). Today, BFCA teaches classes pertaining to the International Codes, the Illinois Plumbing Code, the National Electrical Code, the Life Safety Code and legal aspects of code administration.
Piccolo is a Master Code Professional, a Certified Building Official, a Certified Fire Official, a Certified Property Maintenance Inspector, a Certified Building Inspector, a Certified Plans Examiner, an Illinois Certified Fire Inspector and a Certified Firefighter III. A certified instructor, Piccolo has taught training seminars nationwide in all the model building codes and served as adjunct faculty at William Rainey Harper College (IL) for a number of years. Piccolo or his company are available to provide training on code-related articles to the industry.
Recently, he spent some time with PM Engineer fire protection columnist and specialist Mark Bromann to talk about both Piccolo’s career and the fire protection industry.
MB: Did you make a conscious choice to get into the fire protection business? Did you have any other family members in the business?
Richard Piccolo: No other family members were in the business. At the time that I was looking for work, I was with one of my good friends that I went to school with and met his father at the Goodyear Tire Store. He was a volunteer firefighter. Talking to me, he told me about the job and how great it was, so I thought I would give it a try. I was 21 at the time.
What projects have you been working on recently?
We do a lot of different work. Right now, we do some form of work in 80 municipalities in Illinois, but we also are working on some big casinos and some big multi-use developments in the suburbs of Chicago. These are mixed-uses, where you’ve got some residential, some commercial. Those are interesting to do.
Have you had any unusual projects?
We’ve worked on some strange things…some towers and things like that. In some large projects, like in a big mall or casino-hotel complex, there are a lot of different things to consider. One of the projects we finished just a while ago was the Willow Creek Church. They put on their big church addition. We performed all the reviews and inspections, and that was interesting because that complex had everything: church, mercantile, school, storage. It has business, attractive stores, a big theater, educational wings. It was really interesting because of all the different things that went on in the project.
What do you like best about your job, today?
This is going to sound hokey, but the world is a better place because of what we do.
What annoying problems or any, say, pet peeves, come up in your line of work?
Well, I guess because I am a code person, it’s people that are in the industry who haven’t learned the code-whether it be a design professional, a contractor or a code official who just hasn’t learned what the entire job is. They should know the code and how to work with other people in the industry.
What other occupations do you interface with currently on a daily basis?
A lot of construction people: contractors, carpenters, electricians, fire protection designers, installers, architects, developers, code officials, employees of different municipalities. We deal with a lot of people here.
If there was one thing you could teach these code officials and fire protection designers, what would that entail?
They should understand how their area or discipline is interrelated to the others.
The code gets fatter and fatter.
When I started, the code was a small, skinny book-and the book and I are not small and skinny anymore.
Do you think the code gets fatter because of nomenclature, where the committees are trying to get more exact in their wording, and that beefs it up? Or, are there other reasons?
I actually have two things to say about that. One is that I have a little bit of a concern that the code is becoming too much product-driven and not as much code-driven. Most of the code changes are driven by product manufacturers and not by code people. The other thing is I was just having a discussion with our vice president here about whether you worry sometimes if we are creating regulations for regulations’ sake, just so we have more rules. I don’t know if that is a good thing. There is enough there…I don’t know if you have to create anything new to make it better.
So, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you feel that the industry is overregulated right now?
That’s a tough one. It really depends on you. Sometimes we make a joke of National Electrical as the “book of exceptions.” If we have all those rules, why do we need all the exceptions? I don’t know if I can say which is the greatest, but I think as an industry, we may need to step back and take a look to make sure that we are not just making rules for the sake of making rules.
What is amazing to me is how National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 13 seems to get bigger and bigger, and NFPA 20 seems to stay relatively the same size. I don’t know if that’s because of the particular technical committees involved?
I believe that the code should be as stern as possible, but sometimes we’re spending too much time to try and cover every situation while not letting our experienced personnel make the decisions that they need to make. If you want to write a code that is going to cover every possible situation, NFPA 13 is going to be four volumes thick. We have to give them what the intent is, and then train our professionals to do the job.
What do you see as the pros and cons of fire sprinkler shop drawing design as CADD becomes more prevalent?
I like CADD drawings because they are easier to read, and for the design industry, it probably cuts down a lot of their costs. But sometimes when we do CADD, we don’t become designers, we just become cut-and-paste people and some of the thought goes out of the design-especially when you go and look at a set of plans and they are doing the same row of sprinklers over and over again. The technicians just keep those rows of branchlines going over the top of the office because they just cut and paste. They didn’t look at what they were doing. It’s a great tool, but like any tool, it has to be used properly.
At the same time, has anything become obsolete in the fire protection industry that you can think of, or is there something that you miss?
I don’t know if I miss anything other than hand pumps. Even though I was at a municipality the other day and they had a hand pump on the back of the engine. The industry is so much better than it was when I started: more professional, better equipment. I’m not a person that likes to live in the past-things are better now than they were then.
In the entire process of sprinkler system installation-review, design, installation-the whole thing from A to Z, what party do you consider the most valuable, who’s the MVP along that whole process?
So the question is, who am I going to offend? That is what you are asking me. You know, this is not a cop-out, but I don’t think anybody’s more valuable than the other person because I think it’s a team. If the designer does a bad job, the installer can’t install correctly. And the best installation with a bad installer is going to be terrible. So, everybody who does the job along the way I think is a valuable part of the whole process.
Describe for me what you would definitely include in specifications for a dry storage warehouse.
First of all, a floor plan showing all the storage, the aisles, the type of storage, the height of storage-because that’s data that we aren’t privy to when we do a review. And then, the type of construction, because it’s information that, in many cases, doesn’t make it into the specifications. The installer will tell you the kind of pipe they want to use, the type of sprinklers, and all that stuff. But they leave out the information that you really need to do the design. I just think a complete and comprehensive set of storage details is what’s really the most important thing.
What type of new sprinkler do you think represents the most important industry advancement?
I think there are two, actually. I think the advances in residential sprinklers that make single-family-home sprinklers possible is probably the greatest advancement-because that’s where we have the most chance of saving lives in a fire. But for some of the new designs in the high-challenge fires, it is amazing to see how much fire they can actually control. But that’s a dollar protection. Not that that’s not important, but I think, overall, the advances in sprinkler design for residential occupancies are probably the best.
How soon do you foresee residential fire sprinkler systems becoming something prevalent on the American landscape?
Well, as we know that it’s in the 2005 NFPA 5000 and the appendix of the 2006 International Residential Code (IRC), it’s my guess it’ll be in the text of the 2009 IRC. So I give it 10 years at the most, and they will be required in all new houses.
What are your thoughts on the new FTD program, the sprinkler program that predicts the water transition time for dry systems?
We have only reviewed a few buildings that have used this system. We have not performed any final inspections on any buildings that have used this system. I think the concept sounds good but there are many variables that can come into play. The final consideration will be, will the systems deliver the water in the correct amount of time? As with any new technology, time will tell if it works or it has to be modified.
What is most misunderstood by the general public regarding fire sprinklers?
First of all, I call it the Pink Panther phenomenon because for every Pink Panther movie they have a fire in, they activate all the sprinklers, and that’s what the general public typically thinks; that if they have a fire in the kitchen, it’s going to set all the sprinklers off in the house. That’s probably the biggest misconception. Consequently, they think that the water damage is going to do more than the fire. But the fire will always do more damage than the water. Always. And the public doesn’t understand that. We need to educate the public about how sprinklers really work.
What costs too much in fire protection?
One thing-new technology. We’re doing a project in a far western suburb where they are using a new PEX piping for sprinklers, and one of the things it does is cut down tremendously on the labor costs. So I think that would be one thing. Not that the labor costs too much, but you save money by coming up with new sprinklers, new pipe. Now, if we can reduce the labor costs, I think it will make it more affordable for everybody.
What do you see as the biggest concerns for fire protection in North America?
As a profession, keeping up with the rest of the world. It’s not as bad as when I came to the fire department, but now it’s just having to keep up, having the fire prevention bureaus keeping up with everything that’s going on in the industry. You get new types of systems or new products, and you may have never seen them before. It’s tough keeping up with everything that’s happening in the industry. And the fire service needs to keep up.
How would you rate the job that our professional fire protection organizations are doing?
Overall, I think they are doing a good job, but they spend too much time on turf, too much time fighting with each other instead of working to better the organizations.
Over the past 37 years, what would you say has changed for the good?
For the fire service, everybody wears breathing apparatus now. And there is just more awareness of the fire protection field than there ever was. For a long time, fire prevention engineering or fire prevention in general wasn’t held in very high regard. I think it is now, and that’s good. The new technology and better pipe that have been generated in residential sprinklers have led to reduced costs of the systems. Those are all important things.
SIDEBARS: About the BFCAThe Building & Fire Code Academy® (BFCA), a subsidiary of B & F Technical Code Services, Inc.®, is dedicated to providing comprehensive continuing education and career development training in the building and fire codes and related disciplines. “Building Better with Our Greatest Resource…Education®” is the guiding principle of the academy. The core competency training areas of BFCA are:
- Continuing Education Seminars-based upon the major model codes and standards for inspectors, code officials, design professionals and industry professionals;
- Code Enforcement Career Development Program®-an 11-week school designed to train candidates for careers in the code enforcement industry;
- Private customized training programs fit to individual business or organization needs;
- Illinois Department of Public Health-approved continuing education and plumbing apprenticeship education.
For more information regarding training opportunities with the Building & Fire Code Academy, contact Manager of Training Services Dan Peterson at 800-488-7057 or visit www.bfcacademy.com.