Canadian Consulting Engineer

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Two years ago the City of Vancouver's Fire Department became so frustrated with the poor standard of work done by companies performing annual inspections on systems such as sprinklers and fire alarms,...

June 1, 1999   By Kevin Cheong, P.Eng.

Two years ago the City of Vancouver’s Fire Department became so frustrated with the poor standard of work done by companies performing annual inspections on systems such as sprinklers and fire alarms, they decided that something should be done about it. Rather than try to police the companies themselves the department decided to require that inspectors of life safety systems register themselves with a self-regulating body, namely, the Applied Science Technologists and Technicians of B.C. (ASTTBC).

Before this development ASTTBC membership was required for only a few of these types of jobs. Now the organization has created special registration classes for the various life safety systems.

Since ASTTBC is a self-regulating body its members can be considered professionals by the courts just as professional engineers are. Previously the inspectors probably would not have even been considered specialized contractors since many of them were trained by their companies only to a limited level. But since they are now professionals, in matters of liability they can be held to a higher standard of care (the often artificially high “reasonable practitioner” standard) than contractors — even specialized contractors — would be held to. They are also far more likely to be named as individuals in a lawsuit because of their designation. The potential impact for the individuals could be financially devastating.

ASTTBC is now expected to accept, investigate and judge the validity of complaints as well as determine disciplinary actions. The association also has to determine eligibility for the special registrations: academic and practical experience. While ASTTBC has been in existence for some time, the significance of self-regulation has only recently been tested. Previously individuals could generally resign if threatened with disciplinary action. Now they need to be a member in order to do life safety inspections. It is important to note that disciplinary actions are more like civil proceedings than criminal ones in that innocence is not presumed, so the burden of proof is often placed on the defendant. Jurisdiction is also an issue since Vancouver is currently one of a few jurisdictions requiring registration and some inspectors are saying that a single governing body is not enough (although there is only one Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of B.C.

For building professionals such as engineers there are implications as well since, like engineers, ASTTBC members are required to hold the public’s safety paramount. It is entirely possible that they will discover problems with building systems which they are required to notify to the building owner or others. The people who verify fire alarm installations are not required to be registered, but generally they are the same people who do the inspections and so they will be ASTTBC members.

I have heard that paralegals in Ontario are pushing to become a self-regulating profession. I suspect part of the problem is they do not feel adequately respected considering they do quite a bit of the lawyers’ work. However, given the legal implications of self-regulation for individuals, and the bureaucracy it requires, I wonder if self-regulation really is the answer to the lack of recognition. Any engineer knows that a professional designation is no guarantee of respect.

Many professional bodies have been set up to create a special category of individual in situations where there was a need for professionalism. But it is important that the different professions are differentiated, and that their members have an understanding of the implications of membership. Professions should not be merely associations of people in a similar line of work but bodies where membership means something. I have no doubt that engineers understand that the meaning of being a professional can be diluted very easily. In the case of life safety systems, the meaning of being a professional is too often — and I consider this to have become the basis of our civil law system — being identified as the individual who will compensate the victim. CCE

Kevin Cheong, P.Eng. is an electrical engineer with Robert Freundlich & Associates of Vancouver and teaches fire alarm inspection at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.


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