Op Ed – Fire Code Enforcement: What’s “Right” and What’s “Wrong”?

By Jon Nisja, Editor, Fire Marshals Association of Minnesota

Editor’s note: the opinions and views expressed in this article are the those of the author; they do not represent the opinions and/or views of this association or the author’s employer.

I am starting my 29th year in fire code enforcement. I started doing fire prevention inspections in late- 1982. Like many careers, after a while you begin to look back and reflect on things you have seen happen and where you perceive that things are heading.

For the record I wish to categorically state that I strongly believe in fire codes and fire code inspections. I feel it necessary to make this statement as you may be tempted to think otherwise as you read this article. I am certain that a few of my fire code enforcement counterparts will consider some of my comments to be blasphemous.

It is my sincere belief that fire codes have saved thousands and potentially hundreds of thousands of lives over the years. This is evidenced by the reduction in annual fire deaths from 12,000-plus to under 4,000 in the past three decades at the same time that the population has almost doubled in this country. While we have achieved this remarkable feat, I also believe that fire code enforcement is at a crossroads; one of the paths before us is not one that I relish traveling down.

History of Fire Prevention Codes:

America’s first fire chief, Benjamin Franklin, is often credited with developing the first fire code in this country. Actually, some fire safety regulations appeared to exist almost from the first day that settlers landed here from Europe. Many of the early fire safety regulations appeared to be driven by insurance companies. Even today some of the larger insurance companies are heavily involved in developing fire codes and new technology for fire safety.

The insurance company fire safety requirements were developed in response to a number of conflagrations that burned entire cities or large portions of cities. Since the insurance companies were trying to protect against financial risk, it makes sense that many of their requirements were developed for property protection.

One of the early fire prevention codes used as a model code by many communities was developed by the National Board of Fire Underwriters (NBFU), later re-named the American Insurance Association (AIA). Some of the “old-time” fire marshals still remember the NBFU and AIA fire prevention codes.

In 1912, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) began publishing some pamphlets on exiting following a series of tragic fires with large life loss. These pamphlets led to the development of NFPA’s “Building Exits Code” in 1927. The “Building Exits Code” was renamed the Life Safety Code in 1966.

For the purposes of this article, I will be including life safety as a component of a fire code as I believe that is the way it should be. I realize that is not how it is enforced in many jurisdictions across the United States but, for purposes of this article, I will assume life safety is a major component of fire safety inspections and code enforcement.

Both of these two factions – insurance companies on property protection and NFPA on exiting – based their respective requirements on a compilation of what went wrong in fires. Many argue that these early codes were written with the blood of those who died in the tragedies. And lest we forget, a disproportionate number of these victims were firefighters.

Since the codes were based on preventing the same things that had gone wrong before, the codes were quite successful in doing what they were intended to do – minimize fire spread and decrease life loss.

Modern Fire Codes:

The “America Burning” Report in the early 1970s contained a recommendation that states and cities adopt and enforce fire codes. This landmark report became the impetus for many states to adopt statewide building and fire codes. Before that time, code enforcement was a patchwork of home-grown fire codes primarily enacted in larger communities and insurance company regulations.

With the development, adoption, and enforcement of fire codes in the 1970s and 1980s, fire losses and fire deaths in commercial buildings (the types of buildings most often inspected) dropped dramatically. Again, this is continued evidence that the enforcement of fire safety requirements works.

For years, there were four model fire codes that were basically regional in nature. Each of them was adopted in 8-12 states. That changed in the late 1990s when three of the model codes merged to form the International Code Council (ICC) and jointly developed the International Fire Code (IFC). Today the IFC and NFPA 1 (NFPA’s fire prevention code) serve as the two national model codes.

Types of Prevention Strategies:

Prevention strategies fall into one of these basic types: primary, secondary, or tertiary. Primary prevention strategies are those that deal with preventing the incident from happening. In fire safety, this often involves ignition control. Many of our public fire safety education initiatives are based on a primary prevention strategy such as “matches are tools, not toys”, “watch what you heat”, candle fire safety, and so on. There are also sections of the model fire codes that deal with ignition control (cutting and welding operations, electrical safety, open flames, roofing operations, no smoking provisions, etc.).

Secondary prevention strategies try to mitigate or minimize the damage once an incident occurs. A large percentage of the fire code requirements are secondary prevention strategies. Installing things such as smoke alarms, egress features, sprinkler systems, fire alarm systems, and fire-rated separation walls do nothing to stop a fire’s ignition. They can, however, decrease or minimize its impact on the building or its occupants when a fire occurs.

Tertiary prevention strategies assist by enhancing response capabilities. Like secondary prevention strategies, tertiary strategies do nothing to prevent the incident from occurring. They do, however, allow for better response to the incident by emergency personnel thereby helping to decrease the loss. The fire codes contain some tertiary prevention strategies when they incorporate things such as fire apparatus roads, fire hydrants and firefighting water supplies, premise identification, and hazard markings.

What’s Wrong With the Codes?:

As stated earlier, I believe in fire codes and fire code enforcement. My concern is with the complexity of the codes and the direction that I see code development heading. The first fire code that I worked from was a half-size book, 200 pages in length (the equivalent of 100 full size pages). Our current fire code is over 400 full size pages long.

While the code has quadrupled in size in 25+ years, the vast majority of the fire code deficiencies cited today (I argue in the 80-90% range) were items that could be found as fire code violations in the fire codes of the 1970s.

Adding volume to the book does not necessarily translate to improving fire or life safety. In my opinion, with the exception of some sprinkler and smoke alarm provisions, very little has been added to the fire codes in the past three decades that has drastically improved fire or life safety.

In all of this complexity, we seem to have lost sight of the intent of the code which is to provide a reasonable level of fire and life safety (that wording or something similar can be found as the purpose or intent statement in all of the model fire codes). This will be exacerbated as the “baby boomer” generation of fire marshals are getting to retirement age and may be taking with them the institutional knowledge of the intent of the specific code requirements.

As an example, many code officials do not understand that egress travel distance is not really a measurement of feet; it is a measurement of time that was converted to feet to make it easier to calculate. Once a code official realizes the intent of a code section, there is a more reasoned approach to enforcement. Without knowledge of intent, a 150-foot travel distance requirement would seem to the novice code official to be an absolute maximum number making 149 feet of travel perfectly acceptable but at 151 feet, it becomes an egregious code violation.

There are also code requirements that are incongruent. For instance, we still program elevators not to function during fire emergencies even though we have long allowed persons with disabilities to occupy upper floors in a building.

In a similar example, we continue to classify multi-residential buildings for the elderly and mobility-impaired as apartment buildings and then become frustrated when the residents can’t evacuate with the same speed and ease as college students from dormitories (which fall into the same basic occupancy classification).

My favorite incongruity is that all of the model building, fire, and life safety codes allow the installation of a horizontal exit to be used to end the measurement of travel distance. The codes assume that once they pass through this two-hour fire-rated separation wall, the occupants are virtually as safe as if they were outside the building. Yet the fire alarm system is designed to sound throughout the building even when the codes assume you are no longer in immediate danger from a fire. Why? If you are truly safe from fire, why must you bleed from the ears from obnoxiously loud fire alarm horns?

Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying: “Laws too gentle are seldom obeyed; laws too severe are seldom executed.” Having far more requirements than we need and having requirements that do not make sense or are incongruent poses a threat to our ability to enforce fire codes that are intended to provide a reasonable level of fire and life safety.

As also evidenced with the increase in the size of the fire code books, my biggest frustration with the codes has been the explosion of what I call “special-interest code requirements”. These fire code provisions do nothing to provide an enhanced level of fire or life safety to the community as a whole. They serve as a tool to increase market share, protect turf, or enhance the company’s profit.

I have been privileged enough in my career to have been involved in both of the major code development processes – NFPA and ICC. Even though I have great respect for both of these processes, I am growing increasingly concerned that both processes have been inundated with special interest code requirements.

If you don’t believe me, please do a cursory review of the code change proposals submitted to either process (or both). Then scrutinize these code change submittals from the perspective of whether or not they will prevent a single fire from occurring in your community, or minimize fire loss in your town, or save a life in your state. If the answer to these questions is “no” (benefit to the community as a whole) but the code change proposal will increase market share, protect turf, or enhance a company’s profit, in my opinion this is a special-interest code requirement that should never see the code book’s ink.

I am also concerned that some code officials get so enamored with the code development process that they lose sight of the purpose for the code: “… to establish a reasonable level of fire and life safety and property protection …”. Code development can be addicting to some of us “code nerds” but we must constantly ask ourselves if we are in love with the process or in love with the product. In case you are wondering, the answer better be that you are in love with the product.

Cost of Code Compliance:

Many of my fire code official counterparts will not like to hear this but every fire code provision has a cost associated with compliance. One of the most difficult things that most fire marshals must do is balance the benefit of compliance against the cost incurred by the owner.

I will be the first to argue that:

1. The cost of complying with some fire code provisions is so minimal that it is not worth discussing, and

2. The fire and life safety benefits of some fire code requirements are so great that any cost arguments are rendered moot.

Let me give you some examples. In the first scenario, a fire inspector finds storage blocking egress in a corridor. While there is a cost for a company employee to remove the materials and there may be a cost to changing the company’s storage practices to prevent it from happening again, the costs of moving the storage to another location are so minimal that it does not warrant much discussion.

Nonetheless, there are costs involved. Assuming a maintenance employee is making $40.00 per hour in salary and benefits and it takes the employee 10 minutes to move the storage, the fire code provision cost the company money (in this case about $7.00; a pretty minimal amount).

In the second scenario, a building that lacks the required minimum number of exits or lacks a fire alarm and detection system to provide early warning to occupants that are vulnerable to fire will incur a huge expense that is over-ridden by the fire and life safety benefit (i.e. the risk of not having these features is too great as shown by fire history and life loss).

A study that I have read shows a cost/benefit analysis for many common safety features, such as seat belts and smoke alarms. The cost of providing these features is minimal yet the benefit in terms of lives saved and injuries prevented is enormous. These devices equate to a few dollars per life saved; obviously good investments for the community as a whole.

At the other end of the spectrum were some environmental regulations that were found to have saved no lives but have cost companies and taxpayers billions of dollars in compliance costs. In some cases, the study was unable to assign a cost/benefit since all that could be measured was a cost (there was no evidence of a benefit to society in terms of preventing deaths or injuries). I hope that the fire code never falls into this scenario but I fear that we are getting dangerously close with some of the provisions.

In the state where I work, all rules must be accompanied by a “Statement of Need and Reasonableness”, often referred to as a SONAR.

The SONAR must analyze the cost imposed and the benefit to be achieved. In addition, it requires that persons or groups impacted by the change and persons or groups benefiting from the change be identified. I suspect that this process is not unique to the state where I live; perhaps it is time that the code development processes incorporate this same transparency.

One of the emerging trends of the 21st century is the concept that all regulation must add value. I know that this might be a real subjective question but I interpret this to mean that there must be value to the community as a whole. Are we prepared to show that all of our fire code requirements add value by increasing fire and life safety or by reducing property loss? If they don’t accomplish one of the above, are we prepared to remove those requirements?

In my early days of fire code enforcement, we relied on the fire marshal’s or fire inspector’s judgment that the condition caused a “distinct hazard” to life or property. This made perfect sense as the fire official was basically balancing cost/benefit in their enforcement efforts.

This concept was replaced as society (and the courts) seemed to place more emphasis on consistency and uniformity of enforcement rather than allowing more discretion for the fire code official to enforce those items that were deemed to be a great hazard and essentially ignore or not enforce those provisions that provided negligible benefit (in the opinion of the fire code official). Perhaps that was a natural maturation process as the craft of fire inspections evolved. I fear that the loss of being able to perform a cost/benefit analysis, coupled with the unreasonable and sometimes overly burdensome imposition of requirements will impair our abilities to use the fire code effectively in the future.

Concluding Comments:

The fire codes and fire code inspections have worked to reduce fires, save lives, and minimize property damage. Fire code development is possibly approaching a crossroads. Will it continue to be a tool to save lives, reduce fires, and minimize property damage or will it transition into a process that favors profits, turf, and market share over protecting society as a whole from the ravages of fire? Will it continue to be a valuable resource for a community wishing to positively influence fire and life safety or will it become a book of confusing and incongruent regulations that cost billions of dollars and provide minimal benefit?

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