West Virginia Residents Gain New Level Of Safety

Published: July 1, 2014

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has signed legislation that will make West Virginia the first state to require anyone who installs fire and smoke dampers to be licensed. In a state with little to no building code, the new law is a major step toward insuring only properly trained individuals handle fire and smoke damper installation and repairs as well as HVAC work.

Under the law, inspections and enforcement will be conducted by either the State Fire Marshal or the West Virginia Division of Labor. Currently, only contractors who provide these services are regulated. The technicians who work for contractors are not regulated in terms of requiring formal training.

The push for the new safety legislation in West Virginia was led by SMART Sheet Metal Workers Local 33, with support from members of sister locals like Sheet Metal Workers Local 24 and 100.

“SMART is committed to extensive training for all its members, insuring they are the best trained in the HVAC industry,” said Mike Coleman, Local 33 President and Business Manager. He believes the safety of the public is insured through this legislation because only properly trained individuals will handle these installations. “The inspection component of this new law makes sure that safety continues to be a top priority,” Coleman added.

Journeymen who are members of SMART will likely be grandfathered in if they have logged a certain number of relevant work hours. Meanwhile, future members are expected to obtain the needed license through the course of the apprenticeship program.

From the beginning, the main argument for establishing regulation of HVAC/fire damper technicians was safety. That was reiterated a year ago, before the bill was even introduced in the state legislature, when the proposal was first reviewed by the state’s “legislative auditor.” Any legislation that involves creation or changes to licensing or certification in West Virginia must be reviewed to determine if such a proposal will benefit the public.

“Improper installation of HVAC or fire damper systems can lead to injury, death, or destruction of property,” the application states, “and since individuals performing this work are not required to be licensed, they are therefore not subject to knowledge or skills requirements.”

During the review process, the Division of Labor, State Fire Marshal, State Fire Commission, and the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety (DMAPS) all indicated that regulating HVAC technicians and fire damper technicians would be a benefit and enhance public protection.

“The proposed regulation/statute changes are indeed necessary to protect the safety and welfare of the public,” Acting State Fire Marshal Anthony Carrico said in a prepared statement submitted during the review process. “In particular, the installation and maintenance of ‘fire dampers’ are a critical component of any building engineered to minimize the spread of smoke and or flame through the mechanical spaces and ductwork.”

The final report from the auditor agreed with most of the reasoning detailed in the application—allowing the bill to be introduced.

“State regulation would ensure that technicians have proven knowledge in relevant codes, standards, and regulations set by organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA),” the legislative auditor report said.

To read or download a copy of the report, go to: www.legis.state.wv.us/Joint/PERD/perdrep/HVAC_11_2013.pdf.

The importance of public safety and the value in licensing trained technicians were repeated at each step of the legislative process, which helped garner support in both the State House and Senate.

In the coming year, the actual rules and regulations for enforcing the new law will be reviewed and negotiated. That also must go to the state legislature for approval next year. If the process goes smoothly, the new licenses will be mandatory by January 1, 2016.

Hard Work, Good Plan Helped Bill Move Quickly

Previous efforts in West Virginia by different labor trades to advance legislation that created new regulations or licensing requirements often took years to complete.

Since the state legislature is “in session” for just 60 days each year, there is limited time for debate and compromise, leaving much of that work for study committees held sporadically during the rest of the year.

That makes this year’s effort by SMART all the more impressive. The hard-working team of dedicated labor representatives was able to introduce the bill for the licensing of HVAC installers and fire damper technicians and have it pass in one legislative session— an almost unprecedented accomplishment in West Virginia.

“There were so many moving pieces, it was amazing,” said Randy Gombos, director of organizing for SMART Local 33, who served as the point man for the bill. “It’s an intense and complicated process. [Bills of this nature] can often take years and years (to get passed).”

A previous bill supported by the plumbers and pipefitters as well as different legislation endorsed by union electricians both took multiple years before a final vote was held by the state legislature.

Steve White, the director of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation of West Virginia, said the team of sheet metal workers— led by Local 33, with support from Local 24 and Local 100—had a solid approach to getting the legislation passed.

“Like a good construction project, the number one step is good preparation,” White said. “They did a good job getting ready and getting other local unions involved. They talked to the other crafts and also got the contractors on board.”

The effort to create the new licensure requirements started in 2013, when the application was submitted to the legislative auditor. “It’s really quite an undertaking,” Gombos said of the review process that concluded when the final report was issued in November.

Armed with a supportive opinion from the legislative auditor, House Bill 4392 was introduced in the West Virginia House of Representatives in January, where it was assigned to two committees for review. Over the next few weeks, Gombos said the team of sheet metal workers scheduled meetings with legislators to gauge feelings and opinions on the bill. Changes were made to garner additional support.

White agreed that these efforts helped move the bill along. “They had a great team on the ground,” he said. “They talked to as many legislators as they could. They listened and when possible, agreed to make changes.” The momentum from the numerous conversations and help from some political allies helped the bill traverse through the two house committees and then its eventual passage—sending it to the State Senate to re-start the review process.

After review by the Senate’s Government Organization Committee, the bill eventually cleared the Senate with only a few minor amendments.

The members of the team that worked to pass the bill included: Jeff Rowe, Business Representative, Local 24; Bobby Ina, Lobbyist for Local 33; Randy Gombos, Director of Organizing for Local 33; Steve Hancock, Organizer for Local 33; Scott Mazzulli, Business Representative for Local 33; Steve Singleton, Local 33 member; Dave Efaw, Secretary-Treasurer of the West Virginia Building Trades; and Steve White, Director of ACT West Virginia.

While not involved on a day-to-day basis, the following members provided assistance during the process: Scott Hammond, Business Manager for Local 24; Sam Schaffer, JATC Instructor for Local 24; Jeremy Sarver, Local 24 member; Tim Cook, Local 24 apprentice; Mike Coleman, Business Manager for Local 33; Jim King, Business Representative for Local 33; Steven Perdue, Business Representative for Local 33; Dean Tuell, Business Representative for Local 33; Scott Newell, JATC Instructor for Local 33; Josh Tullius, Local 33 Trustee; Robert Boothe, Local 33 member; Daniel Criss, Local 33 member; Ben Oldaker, Local 33 apprentice; Elijah Smith, Local 33 apprentice; and Dakota Wills, Local 33 apprentice.