Jerry Kopel

Let's suppose it's 2001 and you are in the Colorado mountains for a ski vacation. You checked into a hotel late this evening and are in bed. The hotel was built in 1999. Around 2 a.m. a fire breaks out caused by defective electrical wiring. A fire suppression sprinkler system installed in the hotel to douse any fire doesn't go on because it's defective. Chances are you will be burned alive.

Chances are this won't happen to you. But chances are greater that it could happen to you if the legislative philosophy pushing HB 1009 and 1010 is successful.

HB 1009 by Rep. Bryan Sullivant, R-Breckenridge, continues the Fire Suppression Program, and HB 1010 by Rep. Gayle Berry, R-Grand Junction, continues the regulation of electricians. Both bills, at least in the early stages of passage, are pushing changes that can indirectly affect your well being.

Most occupational licensing laws control situations where the licensee and the consumer of services are face to face and the consumer has a chance to withdraw before all the damage is done.

That isn't true when an electrician's apprentice is wiring a building or a contractor supervises the installation of a fire suppression system in the same building.

Both occupations went through Sunset review in 1997. House Business and State Affairs committees reviewed the bills before the 1998 session began. Both committees turned down key recommendations from the Dept. of Regulatory Agency (DORA).

Colorado's Fire Suppression program began in 1991 following a Sunrise application and review in 1989. Fire suppression contractors are presently registered with the Division of Fire Safety and "are required to have sufficient knowledge and understanding of the design and installation of these systems (to be able to) install the systems properly and safely."

But DORA is worried about potential disaster. "If the system is installed by an inexperienced firm, the consequences could be catastrophic...The statute requires a qualified person, but there are no requirements in place that measure whether a contractor is qualified."

DORA points out registration is generally used only when the threat to public safety is minimal. "Danger in the incorrect installation ...of fire suppression systems is great." So DORA wanted to certify contractors by a testing process through the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET). Presently, 62 of the 223 contractors have voluntarily obtained certification.

The State Affairs Committee in December decided not to certify contractors. And they will not even be registered anymore. If the philosophy behind HB 1009 wins, I could hold myself out as a fire suppression system contractor. If I screw up, the state's main recourse is a criminal action because I don't need state approval to continue doing what I'm doing.

A criminal action requires the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that I don't "have sufficient knowledge and understanding to install the systems properly and safely". The fact that my installed system didn't work and some people died is merely one item of proof. I could still "beat the rap".

But if the law required me to be registered or certified, all the state needed to do is meet the "burden of proof" test, producing greater evidence that I screwed up than I was able to produce to show that I didn't. This is a much easier way to stop incompetent contractors than through a criminal case conducted by the District Attorney.

HB 1009 continues the requirement that inspections of fire suppression systems be performed by certified inspectors, and there are 208 of them in Colorado. But as DORA points out "inspectors ...should not have to spend excessive time to assure plans are complete or accurate because the contractor involved lacks the expertise in fire suppression systems."

"These systems" warns DORA "are the last line of public protection. They have no backup systems that intervene if they fail. They must work to their maximum efficiency the first time and must continue working until they extinguish the fire. There is simply no margin for error."

HB 1010, which continues the regulation of electricians, has two deficiencies. It replaces the nine member electrical board with one person, the director of the division of registrations. Of course, he's not going to do the work of supervising the present 13,581 licensees. That will be done by the Electrical Act program administrator who may be well qualified, but in no ways equal to the total diversity, experience and qualifications of the nine member board.

In 1996, there were 1,653 electrical fires in Colorado, the most ever recorded in recent history, and DORA reports the state's Division of Fire Safety "determined that mechanical failures, faulty design, construction, or installation, and operational deficiencies account for about 27 percent of electrical fires."

In Colorado, electrical apprentices are not required to participate in a formal training or education program. DORA reports "There are no requirements beyond licensure of the electrician (to handle the) supervision of an apprentice." Any licensed journeyman or master electrician is presently allowed to supervise only one apprentice.

An attempt to increase the number of apprentices per electrician was made in the 1997 legislature and failed. It is back again in HB 1010. The original 1998 bill would have allowed two apprentices for each licensed electrician. That was amended in Business Affairs to NO restriction on the number of apprentices per electrician.

Presently there are 11,852 licensed electricians and 6,666 registered apprentices, which means the number of apprentices could nearly double without ANY change in the law. DORA maintains that "increasing the ratio (from the present one to one) will decrease the training time and supervision (by the journeyman) devoted to an individual apprentice."

As both these bills wend their way through the legislature, there will be revisions both good and bad. The final decisions will likely come after House-Senate conference committees.

The incentive driving the committee amendments to HB 1009 and 1010 has to be money. Hiring one electrician and three apprentices is cheaper than hiring two electricians and two apprentices. Cheaper electrician labor plus low bidding by less qualified fire suppression contractors can reduce the cost of construction of buildings used by the public. But the end result, years later, may be fatal injuries to unsuspecting consumers.

Postscript: The House State Affairs Committee changed its mind in January on HB 1009 and voted to approve an amendment that restores registration of fire suppression contractors, but still fails to require their certification. That amendment still needs to be approved by the House on second reading after the bill clears House Appropriations Committee.


Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.

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