Contractors and AHJs: Are They Oil and Water or Bacon and Eggs

Contractors and AHJs: Are They Oil and Water or Bacon and Eggs

By Jon Nisja

As a sprinkler contractor, you have probably encountered the unreasonable authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). This is the code official who approves the plans as submitted, performs a few rough-in walk-throughs but then waits until the time of the final inspection to tell you that you need to add 120 sprinklers to closets or bathrooms and threatens to hold up the building’s certificate of occupancy until they are installed. Or maybe they like to ignore the adopted codes and standards and enforce their own “cuz code”: “cuz I said so”.

As an AHJ, you may have encountered the sprinkler contractor who glues sprinklers to the ceiling, won’t follow the codes and standards, doesn’t use listed equipment when required, consistently doesn’t pull permits, works at night so you won’t catch them, or generally tries to cut every corner.

Admittedly, I come at this from an AHJ perspective; having spent 37 years as a fire marshal. It has been my privilege to meet and work with hundreds of fire marshals and fire inspectors in my career. Here are some things that fire marshals and fire inspectors probably won’t tell you:

  • They care deeply about their communities and often their passion is real:
    • Many came to the job from the response side of the fire service.
    • They have seen what happens when things go wrong.
  • They probably were not prepared for the job when they got it:
    • Fire marshals and inspectors are used to dealing with problems; they can handle that.
    • Just be honest and upfront with them and most will help you through the issue.
  • The fire prevention and inspection bureau is often the unwanted and neglected “stepchild” in the fire department:
    • They often have the smallest budget.
    • They are often the first thing cut when the fire department budget gets tight. Yet fire marshals and inspectors know that they have saved more lives than any chrome bumper or fancy paint job on a fire truck (which rarely get cut out of the budget).

For years, I got to work with some great sprinkler contractors. One of the contractors (unfortunately, now retired) once told me “You, as the AHJ, are our last line of defense to make sure that the systems we install are going to work.” This was a contractor who pulled permits, submitted good plans, and performed quality work in the field. But this contractor knew that mistakes could happen and viewed the contractor / AHJ relationship as a symbiotic one.

What is your view? As a contractor do you feel that the relationship with AHJs is like oil and water; maybe some sort of necessary evil (at best) and an impediment to you doing your job.

Or is your relationship with the AHJ like bacon and eggs (things that go well together). Is it one of mutual respect and appreciation that they can help fix an issue so that the important fire protection systems you install are going to work?

About the author…

Jon Nisja is a Data and Fire Protection Specialist with the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA). Prior to working for NFSA, Jon served as a fire marshal since 1985 in two communities and as a state fire safety supervisor for the Minnesota State Fire Marshal Division. From 2005-2022, he supervised the State Fire Marshal’s fire protection, training, and data teams. He is the past president of both the Fire Marshals Association of Minnesota and the International Fire Marshals Association. Jon can be reached at