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Certification Classes A Logical Step For Berks Fire Water

At the Restoration Technical Institute, students can learn about everything from odor control to meth lab cleanup. At a recent course, more than a dozen people split into teams to try out a thermal fogger, learn more about inventory tracking and go through a cleaning circuit.

"A lot of people say, you're crazy; you're training your competition," said Lisa Lavender, Berks Fire Water Restorations Inc.'s chief operating officer.

The school is the latest expansion of the Muhlenberg Township company. As Berks Fire Water grew and offered more training for employees, the company opened the Restoration Technical Institute last year and invited outside restoration technicians and companies. In the past year, the school has trained close to 1,000 students. While some see that as training the competition, Lavender sees it as raising the bar in the industry.

Berks Fire Water Restorations provides a wide variety of restoration and reconstruction services for properties damaged by things such as fire, mold or vandalism. The company was recognized nationally this year by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with two small-business awards.

The restoration company offered some classes for staff over the past decade and started inviting those in the insurance industry. As more staff needed training, Steve Schumm was named the company's director of education. He started inviting experts from around the country for specialized courses on things like color restoration.

Berks Fire Water Restorations' new headquarters in Tuckerton added more space, and management realized others could be invited to the courses. A meeting room serves as the main classroom, and another room will be a vendor area, where suppliers and distributors can set up displays about their products, for a fee. Now the school's making it easier for Berks Fire Water staff to be trained.

"I think it makes our people better and the quality of our work better," Lavender said.

The classes also provide the company with a new revenue stream. The company charges about $400 for a class, and there are anywhere from 10 to 45 people in each class. The company plans to offer more than a dozen classes in 2014.

"With the insurance professionals, when we started that side of it, it's a great way to build relationships, which is critical," Lavender said. "Insurance professional relationships are critical to the core business of Berks Fire and Water."

Insurance companies also encourage restoration businesses to train staff and get certifications, said John Downey, vice chairman of the communications committee for the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification. The Washington nonprofit is the certification and standard-setting group for the inspection, cleaning and restoration industries.

In the classes, students learn about how to clean and restore as well as why certain techniques work better. That knowledge can eliminate any future problems, such as mold developing after water damage, Downey said.

"Insurance companies want to use companies that have their technicians certified, especially with water, fire, smoke and mold, where there are potential liabilities if things aren't done the right way," Downey said.

More than 70 schools nationwide are affiliated with the IICRC, including one in Pittsburgh. Most schools are privately run by large cleaning franchises, and others are affiliated with product manufacturers and distributors, Downey said.

The Restoration Technical Institute is going through the process of becoming an affiliated school. In the meantime, it hosts instructors connected to other schools.

At a recent two-day fire and smoke remediation technician class, instructor Ron Valega spent the second morning explaining the best ways to clean surfaces, from vinyl wallpaper to textured ceilings. He cautioned students against lowering the final bill when a product cuts the cleaning time, such as a chandelier spray that drips dry.

"We get paid for what we know, not how long it takes us to do it," Valega said.

They took a break to compare what could be cleaned by hand and with newer tools.

One student, Cesar Arriaga, of E-Z Restoration in northern New Jersey, had already taken a water restoration technician class and was planning to follow up the fire and smoke class with a one-day odor-control class. After each class, he takes the certification tests to get more credentials.

"It looks better when you go to a job," he said.

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