The permitting process for tent installations can be fraught with frustration, but there are strategies for satisfying code officials while serving customers.
As president and CEO of Big 4 Party Rentals and Event Solutions, Rob Roberts is an expert in filing for permits and working with code officials on tent installations in northern California. There’s a reason he’s good at it—for years, he was on the regulatory side. Before purchasing his event company in 2008, he worked in local law enforcement for 13 years, and then as a state regulator for oil refineries, working alongside the U.S. Coast Guard and fire departments, for another 13 years. Roberts facilitated a round table discussion at IFAI Tent Expo 2013 on the topic of working with code officials, and he spoke with InTents about the issues tent rental companies face working with code officials, and how they might be overcome.
Q: Probably every tent rental company has a horror story about a difficult permitting process or code official. What typical things trip up the process?
A: One issue is working with two fire inspectors. We’ll have a great rapport with a fire marshal, but then Friday comes—a lot of our setups are on Fridays—and the Friday official interprets things differently. We just did a 100-by-200-foot structure, and the head fire inspector was on vacation during the event so he sent another inspector out. This inspector wanted things exactly to code. I said, “Well, the first inspector said we had a little flexibility here,” and he said, “Well, I’m the guy signing it, I want this changed.” So I had people ganging chairs where we thought they were okay based on lack of walls or whatever. We’re all human beings, we all interpret things a bit differently. It’s not the end of the world. When an inspector is signing that permit, the liability is on them.
Another issue is that jurisdictions interpret the code differently. We will be told on a fire exit, for example, that the slider bar is required for this city; some want a ridged bar, some want contrasting colors, some say it’s okay to have it outlined as long as it’s contrasting. We have to know how each city interprets the code.
Q: Are there new challenges with regard to permits—things that didn’t come up five or ten years ago?
A: For years we never filed a permit, but in the last three years, especially since the economy’s down, permits have become revenue generators for cities and counties. Permits are supposed to break even, but to some extent they are a little bit revenue generating, just like speeding tickets. It’s tough when a customer hasn’t had to apply for a permit, for example, for a hotel to set up a tent in the winter to expand its dining facility or ballroom. Now the city wants a planning permit. The client is increasing its revenue, so the city wants to get a piece of the pie.
The other issue relates to 24-hour news coverage and social media. The stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair in 2011 is the type of event that causes concern. I don’t think it’s happening any more than in the past, in fact I think it’s happening less, but the information is out there more. It’s heightening code officials’ awareness and causing them to question things, and to educate themselves too. They are talking about this at their association meetings just as we talk about this at ours. There’s more following of the letter of the law. In California, depending on the amount of chairs you are providing and the row configuration, they have to be ganged or somehow connected, and exit openings have to be 72 inches. Officials are coming out with their sticks and checking stuff. They are looking more at how we are securing tents, talking about how they like webbing, not ropes, they don’t like knots. Someone’s taught them that there’s a stronger hold.
Q: What has worked for your company to make the process easier?
A: We make the jurisdiction feel confident and comfortable with us so that when they see “Big 4 Party” they don’t scrutinize it as tightly because we have a track record. We build a level of confidence with these jurisdictions.
If you are new or working in an area new to you, don’t wait until the minimum 14 or 10 days to apply for a permit. If it’s something that’s a little out of the ordinary I start a dialogue 90 days ahead of time. I’ll say, “Hey, I know it’s not for four months, but I’d like to get an idea of what you are going to require. This is what we are doing, it’s a new venue, this customer wants to try this instead of that, what are your thoughts?”
A lot of times they will say that until you give them the plans they won’t comment. I respond with, “Well, what are the things I need to be aware of to talk to the customer ahead of time?” They appreciate that you’ve gone to them ahead of time instead of managing a crisis. We don’t want to wait until two days before and realize we needed this ADA access or there’s not enough egress or that road’s not wide enough to get an apparatus in. If they are not familiar with the site I send them a map from Google along with a CAD. I say, “This is what the customer is visualizing, the tent is at this angle, does that work for you if the wall is here?” Maybe it’s too close or it’s not close enough. This gives me time to go back to the customer.
Also, fire inspectors are not engineers, so we need to make it as simple as possible without making it too simple. If the engineering company or tent manufacturer is sending you specs, have them work up a cheat sheet for the layperson. Talk to the official intelligently and educate them about things like soil quality. If you act professionally, and you and your installers take pride in your knowledge and exude confidence, code officials pick up on that. If you don’t have a lot of answers, that’s when they are going to second-guess you.
Q: What can tent rental companies do to educate code officials over the long term so issues with specific installations are mitigated?
A: My company and four others sat down with the deputy regional fire marshal for the state and a couple of jurisdictions and did a forum. We said, “What would you like to see from tent companies?” and, “These are our frustrations.” It made them realize we are trying to do our best, but sometimes we get on site and something has changed, or the customer requested a change after we applied for the permit. Basically, we used empathy. And we heard their side—they are short staffed, they’re doing housing inspections, new developments, remodels as well as tents. We told them about the TRD ballasting study, and these inspectors said that it would help them so much to have something that was third party, that was scientific in nature, that they could refer to.
Q: Finally, do you have a top tip for working with code officials?
A: The biggest thing is to build a rapport. Don’t always be there requesting a last-minute tent permit. Make code officials a part of your team, invite them to your shop. Make them feel that you are on their side. When meeting on-site I show up beforehand and meet them at their truck. I tell them the good, the bad and ugly on this client. I almost make them sympathize with me a little bit. I may say I’m frustrated, is there anything you can do? You catch them off guard. Sometimes Fortune 500 clients try to do something really off the mark and think they can just throw money at it and make it happen. I may ask the code official to help me figure out a solution, or we’ll tell the client “no” together. I’ll say it’s not safe, and the official says the code won’t support it.
The official is not the enemy. Work with them, educate them, include them in the decision-making process, and communicate, communicate, communicate.