September 17, 2014
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Benefits, limitations of U.S. Building and Fire Codes
Bob Sweeney

The regulated means afforded to all of us for a safe environment in entering any building in the U.S. is the standardized Model Building and Fire Codes. The major codes used are the IBC International Building and Fire Codes and the NFPA National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Codes. They are designed to serve and protect the public’s health, safety and general welfare through structural strength and environmental requirements. The goal of the codes is to keep costs affordable and still maintain acceptable risks. The trust for code compliance is placed in our building code inspectors and our deputy state fire marshals.

Introduction of new codes and modifications to existing codes are submitted and reviewed on a yearly basis. After heated debates by opposing viewpoints, usually it’s the code officials, fire service personnel and others who have a high regard for life-safety issues versus the designers, builders and developers who require the greatest choices possible and the lowest costs to build all their projects. New regulations are published every three years. There is a provision for a TIA Tentative Interim Agreement usually after a serious incident with severe loss of lives and property. They can be enacted as provided and then voted on at the next conference. Since codes are the consensus of very strong opposite opinions, the final product in many cases is the lowest minimum standard.

The codes spell out all phases of construction from land preparation, foundation, walls, roof, utilities, sanitation and fire protection. A large percent of the codes are intended to address the fire safety issues. Placement of emergency exits, signage and paths of egress are addressed in the fire codes as well as interior finishes, doors, windows and open space around buildings to allow the fire service response space. There is also a rule called “Sprinkler Tradeoffs.” This simply means if a building has an automatic fire suppression sprinkler system installed, it is allowed to increase height and area. Also, some decrease in the fire rating of the building assemblies and longer paths of egress. Codes are designed to give occupants sufficient time to safely evacuate a building but not to save it.

When plans for a new building, addition or renovation are ready, they must be presented to the local building authority and the local fire marshal for their review and approval. In some cases, if rejected, there is a path for submission for a variance due to a hardship or other extenuating circumstances. 

The current codes are usually adopted by most states with some or many modifications, but a few cities, such as New York City, have their own codes. There are 15,000 permit issuing local governments and 44,000 Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) that can also modify certain regulations to suit a local need.

For the most part, code development practices operate in a vacuum until a serious hazardous incident occurs with the loss of many lives. Only then will the public and the media react, and responsible legislative process changes to the existing codes will occur, such as transpired in Rhode Island in 2003 after the devastating “Station Nightclub” fire.

The codes as written are called the prescriptive codes, but some designers may design a structure using the alternative method called performance-based codes, which means the proven design must meet the intent of the codes. 

Balance Design is a term used by advocates for a safe, durable and redundant system using both active and passive fire protection systems that affords a higher level of life safety. The stated goals are: 1. Detection (Active): Fire alarms, smoke detectors, 2. Suppression (Active): Automatic sprinkler systems, hand fire extinguishers, 3. Containment (Passive): Non-combustible fire-resistant assemblies for floors, walls, ceilings and roofs, 4. Education (Passive): Fire prevention means to be known to all occupants, staff and officials. Sprinklers are very effective but occasionally do not always operate as designed, therefore redundancy of active and passive fire protection systems is still the best means for improved life safety for all.

Life-safety of guests and occupants in a public occupied building is a three-way partnership between the fire service in their inspection and enforcement; owners, management and staff in their diligent housekeeping to keep all paths of egress unobstructed to the secondary emergency exiting doors; and to be sure the doors can open from the inside and swing to the outside. Also, they must make the audio announcements if required to inform all of the emergency exits. Third, guests and occupants should listen for these announcements and also when entering to observe the locations of the safe paths of egress and locations of the emergency exits. 

There were still over 2,500 deaths in 2011 in commercial structure fires. This is still unacceptable, and in new and renovation construction we should build to exceed code if feasible. The reason most builders do not build to exceed codes is that they claim their projects are client-driven and keeping costs as low as possible and still be code compliment is what owners and developers require.

We should question their effectiveness and durability through the regulated process. Many hours of research, meetings and procedural voting by unselfish life-safety professionals and others go into the code process. This is to insure all of us when entering any building in the U.S. that we are safe from various hazardous incidents that may occur in our daily routines.

A Warwick resident, Bob Sweeney is president of RES Associates, a consultant to the construction industry.


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