By Jack J. Murphy
Each column, a new author will feature an article from one of the International Code Council (ICC) building, fire, mechanical, plumbing, residential (one and two family), energy conservation, and existing building codes or standards [National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM), Underwriters Laboratories (UL)] that affect fire protection and building systems (or lack thereof) disturbing our battlefield, the fireground. While the code development process (three-year cycle) may be a tedious undertaking, its impact on occupants and firefighter safety is paramount. New construction techniques and materials ae well as innovative building technologies at times run ahead of a code ratification.
Beyond code enforcement, codes and standards are at the forefront of reducing life safety losses as well as firefighter deaths and on-duty injuries. The hope of this column is to encourage more firefighters’ participation in the code development process, whether at the national, state, or local level.
Modern Code Development
The city of Baltimore (MD) adopted the first respectable building code in 1859. A few years later in 1873, the National Association of Fire Engineers (NAFE, later known as the IAFC) developed eight building construction fire safety concerns. In 1884, a former Boston (MA) fire chief petitioned the NAFE to formulize a building code. The next year, fire insurance groups gathered to develop a uniformed sprinkler standard, which eventually began the formation of the NFPA.
After the 1906 San Francisco (CA) earthquake, many municipalities enacted proper building and fire codes. That same year, the National Board of Fire Underwriters introduced the first published National Building Code. Since then, three regional legacy codes presided over the country: The Uniform Building Code (UBC); National Building Code (BOCA); and Standard Building Code (SBCCI) united to form the Model ICC. It would take almost another 100 years before a nationwide international building and fire code was incorporated. In the early 1990s, the legacy codes started to formulate national model codes. In 1997, the ICC published the first model codes.
The ICC national model codes allow each individual state the right to accept as written, modify, and/or reserve code sections. This nationwide code development process is still in its infancy stages.
Public Reaction Causes Significant Code Adoptions
Major incidents cause public reaction for life safety changes, like the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the 1980 MGM Grand Hotel Fire, etc. Many times, after a massive fire the public hears that the building is code compliant. After the 2015 Edgewater, New Jersey, large lightweight “toothpick” construction residential fire, it was not acceptable that the building owner representative said to the media that the building is “code compliant” when in fact it only meets a “minimum” code condition as set forth.
What the public needs to know after these tragic fire events is that the fire service advocated fire protection features that would have better safeguarded the building, but that the industry opted for fewer fire protection measures in code hearing.
Taming the Fire Environment
The potential fire environment within buildings is never routine; it may be minor in nature but have the potential to be catastrophic, especially as the structure goes through its life’s cycle. The building life cycle is a key element for the fire service to keep in mind after the certificate of occupancy is issued. Based on this, a balanced fire protection approach mentality must weigh into a new code or modified code section where it is applicable. Beyond the new construction phase, buildings will continue to need a balance for fire protection systems that are inclusive of both active fire protection systems such as sprinkler, fire alarm, and fire extinguishing systems and passive fire protection systems that compartmentalize a building using fire-rated partitions and walls.
Fires in buildings that do not have a balanced fire protection system can result in extensive property damage as well as loss of life. When asked about trading off lesser fire protection features because the building has a sprinkler system, the fire service should ask those calling for a tradeoff what building system amenity the industry is willing to give up.
Understanding the Code Development Process
Understanding the code development framework starts before a new building is constructed. The national code/standard development cycle ratifies the code changes every three years. Any new code or an existing code modification can have an impact on life safety and fireground operations. Therefore, it is critical for the fire service to be actively involved in each code development cycle.
United Fire Service Participation
The fire service is entrusted with being the life safety “watchdog” for the public-at-large and, as firefighters, we are stakeholders in taming the fire environment. Managing the fireground risk begins with the code hearings for reducing line-of-duty firefighter deaths and injuries.
Across the country, the ICC building and fire codes have become the code of choice for many states. Beyond the national fire service organizations, participation of numerous untapped fire service voices must come from the local fire departments to follow the process and cast their remote electronic votes. The eligible municipal vote amount is based on the population served.
To get more involved in the ICC code process, a local fire department should contact the ICC’s membership services department; go to: firstname.lastname@example.org and register your department as eligible code development voters. Some states, however, prefer to use the ICC building code along with NFPA 1 fire prevention and 101 life safety codes. Either way, each code cycle is always reinventing itself.
In the NFPA standards process, there are some 300 codes/standards, many of which have a direct impact on a fire department response and equipment, management, fire protection systems, fire prevention, and public education. The NFPA is always seeking a fire service representative for the technical committees. To serve on a NFPA technical committee, go to www.nfpa.org.
What the Suppression Units Should Know
In the ICC Fire Code Chapter 5 the fire service features are a means to make a safer environment for fireground operations. During a fire company inspection, the eight Chapter 5 features should be duly noted: for fire apparatus access road as being maintained in a clean manner; the access to the building and roof; premises identification clearly visible; the location of the key box; fire hydrants, other water supplies, water tanks, etc.; where present a high-rise building fire command center and an approved fire department building information card are readily available; fire protection and utility equipment identification and access; and whether the department’s portable radio frequency is operable within the structure to meet the requirements set forth in emergency responder radio coverage, Section 510.
Highlights of other fire code sections impacting the fireground include the following:
1. Emergency responder radio coverage in existing buildings (NJ State IFC Section 510.2/2015 edition) shall be provided with approved radio coverage for emergency responders, etc. This code section covers all existing buildings.
2. Fire escape stairways and balconies (ICC Fire Code 1188.8.131.52 Examination/2015 edition)shall be examined for structural adequacy and safety in accordance with Section 1104.16.5 by a registered design professional or others acceptable to the fire code official every five years, or as required by the fire code official. An inspection report shall be submitted to the fire code official after such examination.
3. Are fire department connections (FDC) visible and is there appropriate signage about the siamese? FDC (NJ State /IFC 912.2.1) shall be located on the street side of the building, fully visible, and recognizable from the street, etc. FC Section 912.5 Signs. A metal sign with raised letters not less than one inch in size shall be mounted on all FDC serving automatic sprinklers, standpipes, or fire pump connections, etc.
4. Fire companies doing a routine multifamily new building inspection may raise the issue with local code officials on their findings. Is there a code section to apply to an orderly installation of multiple gas meters, or is this an out of bounds from the code process that needs to be addressed?
A broad fire service “Taming the Fire Environment” mentality must continue to engage in the ICC/NFPA code and standard development process at both the national and state levels. Over time in this column, we will encourage more firefighter activism with codes to resound across the country so as to better safeguard the public and firefighters and to win over building owners to diminish their liability.
• International Code Council (ICC) Fire Code (2105 Edition), https://codes.iccsafe.org/public/document/toc/542/.
• National Fire Protection Association, www.nfpa.org.
• New Jersey State International Fire Code (2015 Edition).
Jack J. Murphy, MA, is a fire marshal (ret.) and former deputy chief of the Leonia (NJ) Fire Department and Bergen County deputy fire coordinator. He also serves as a committee member for the NFPA 1620, Standard for Pre-Incident Planning, High-Rise Building Safety Advisory Board. Murphy represents the IAFC on the Northeast Fire Code Regional Work Group and is the chairman of the New York City High-Rise Fire Safety Directors Association. He is a member of the FDIC and Fire Engineering Executive Advisory Boards and in 2012 was the recipient of the Fire Engineering Tom Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award.