Advancing Fire Safety: Interview with Russ Leavitt, Executive Chairman of Telgian

Russ Leavitt, NFPA Chair of the Board

Share this content


Russ Leavitt, Executive Chairman of Telgian, shares pivotal moments from his career and the evolution of Telgian in enhancing fire safety

With over four decades of dedication to advancing fire safety through innovative solutions and comprehensive training, Russ Leavitt, Executive Chairman of Telgian has profoundly influenced the fire protection industry.

This conversation delves into his substantial contributions, the evolution of Telgian under his leadership, and his insights on current challenges and future directions in fire safety management.

What initially drew you into the fire protection industry?

I came into the fire protection industry almost by accident.

I discovered early on that it was rare to have the opportunity to earn a living while doing something that mattered—saving lives and protecting property.

As a result, I quickly took every opportunity given to develop my knowledge and skills.

I became active in the local Society of Fire Protection Engineers chapter, earned my certifications as a fire protection system designer, and volunteered for projects that my fellow designers avoided.

In less than two years I was promoted to lead designer where I supervised a team of individuals who were much older and had more experience than me.

It was simply my nature to say ‘Yes’ to every new challenge offered.

That willingness to do whatever needed to be done led to a series of incredible opportunities.

What pivotal moments have defined your journey to Executive Chairman at Telgian?

I had always wanted to have my own company.

With a partner, and the support of my employer, I founded a design firm that offered fire protection design services to contractors, architects, building owners, and just about anyone else we could find.

My wife and I took all of our savings, retirement funds, and with the use of personal credit cards, financed the start of Fire Design Group.

It was a difficult time, as within a couple of months of founding the business a severe economic recession struck southern California.

We stuck it out.

The biggest moment of my career path took place when I received a call from my current partner, Jim Tomes, seeking design assistance for his father’s small fire and life safety consultancy.

Two weeks later we merged our two companies and, as we say: The rest is history.

Can you talk about the evolution Telgian has undergone since its inception?

One of the first characteristics that we recognised was the diversity in backgrounds and perspectives of the founding members pertaining to fire and life safety.

We were formed with individuals from the public fire service, engineering, contracting, and system design.

It was eye opening when discussing a project or customer issue to witness the different perspectives each of us brought to the table.

We realised that when we gave equal attention to each other’s biases, it allowed us to formulate solutions from a 360-degree view, which our customers recognised as unique compared to their dealings with other firms.

Because of the lack of clear direction in the fire and building codes for these unique properties, we were deeply involved in the development of protection criteria though fire testing, codes and standards development, and risk management.

We intentionally challenged the status-quo regarding traditional fire protection approaches.

We were the leaders in removing the use of smoke curtains in sprinklered warehouses, changing how smoke and heat vents were utilised, and in the development of Control Mode Specific Application sprinkler technology.

A major strategic decision was to answer our customers’ repeated requests to provide fire protection inspection and testing services.

This was outside our core consulting and engineering expertise, but we decided to take on this new service line.

Our model conducted the needed system inspections and tests, but we did not provide repair or corrective services.

This was to eliminate the potential conflict of interest that exists where service providers do inspections and then perform and corrective actions or needed repairs.

It allowed us to objectively provide our recommendations to the customer.

This part of our business quickly became our biggest revenue producer and for a time, we lost some of our identity as an engineering and consulting firm.

This led us to split the company into two separate legal entities under a holding company named Telgian Holdings, Inc.

We were the first, and still one of only a few companies that provide the complete portfolio of services for fire and life safety, from conceptual design to system maintenance.

How has your involvement with NFPA influenced fire safety standards?

I have served on various NFPA Technical Committees for nearly three decades.

For many of the committees I represented owner or user stakeholders.

I have always tried to focus on the term ‘reasonable’ when it comes to code and standard requirements.

Codes and standards cannot guarantee one hundred percent success even if they are implemented in complete compliance.

The cost of a requirement must be evaluated with the protection provided for life safety or property.

Incorporating good risk management must be a part of the development process along with the practicality of a requirement.

When serving as the chair of various committees I always challenged members to consider what problem was being solved by a proposed change to the standard or code.

We sometimes create a solution and then go ‘looking for the problem.’  I believe that I have had a positive impact in ensuring that we apply the ‘reasonableness’ factor on the committees I have served or chaired.

Finally, I have worked to ensure that NFPA codes and standards can be applied internationally.

Over the past 125 years, NFPA committees have been United States-centric.

I have actively recruited international experts to participate in the NFPA standards making process and because of my, and other’s efforts, we are developing a more global view of fire protection and life safety.

If we are to have a significant impact in increasing the level of fire and life safety globally, we must share knowledge and skills.

The NFPA Fire and Life Safety Ecosystem demonstrates that having up-to-date standards and codes without a skilled workforce and knowledgeable enforcers will result in little progress.

What are some of the approaches Telgian is exploring to enhance fire mitigation?

One of our six core values states, ‘Innovation is the key to our future success.’  We are deeply involved in the supply chain vertical.

The evolution of Automatic Storage Retrieval Systems (ASRS) is reshaping the warehousing, storage, and distribution industry.

We have conducted 250 large- and small-scale fire tests over the last three years to develop new ways to protect this fast-evolving landscape.

We are always looking for more efficient methods for our customers to manage their fire risks.

For example, after conducting a rigorous examination for a global customer of the change in fire risk created by the changes in products and their handling, a decision was made to increase the protection provided by their existing fire protection systems.

The project involved over two thousand locations and was budgeted at $1 billion.

We developed a plan to conduct fire tests for the most common protection schemes to determine the most efficient methods to make the conversion.

This customer spent $10 million on the testing, but the information learned allowed the retrofit budget to be halved—a savings of $500 million.

Finally, fire tests have traditionally been used to determine the best protection schemes with specific types of sprinklers installed in specific arrangements.

We initiated a series of full-scale fire tests to examine the ability of existing fire sprinkler systems to protect real world storage scenarios such as blocked flue spaces or irregular storage arrangements.

The tests have created a wealth of information for our insurance partners and customers to use in evaluating the risks presented by these various real-world conditions.

According to our partners at UL Solutions, they have never seen a test program of this scale looking at the risks where protection schemes are not strictly followed.

What legacy do you hope to leave in the fire safety industry?

I, along with the other shareholders and officers of Telgian have always wanted to build an organisation that would live beyond our lifetimes.

I hope to be remembered as someone who was passionate about fire and life safety, while sensitive to the needs along with the restraints of all stakeholders.

I have tried to exercise reasonableness in my approach while not being afraid to question the status quo.

I have also learned to view fire and life safety through a global lens, recognising that there are cultural and societal concerns that cannot be ignored while working towards a fire safe world.

My advice to the next generation is two-fold. First, say ‘Yes!’ when asked to go outside your comfort zone.

Do not let your fear of failure stop you from developing and growing, both as a fire and life safety professional and as a businessperson.

Second: Be ever-learning.

The worst possible answer we can give to a question of ‘why we do something a particular way’ is to say, ‘Well, it is the way we have always done it.’ 

An excellent mantra is to ‘Question and then Innovate.’  I can think of few other professions where someone can contribute to the greater good while providing for their family and loved ones.

This article was originally published in the June 2024 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

Receive the latest breaking news straight to your inbox