Taming the Fire Environment: Performance Is in the Flexibility of Codes

Mike Love

The astute proverb “Necessity is the mother of invention” so well explains humanity’s advancements. Problems create necessity, and to the observant person those problems are opportunities. There may be no practical limit to the number of future inventions, advancements, and even economic developments so long as we have problems. I spent the last 10 years of my firefighting career as fire marshal, collecting problems that often had no solution. This included community risk that resulted in casualties to firefighters and residents alike, so my radar was always on alert for new methods or innovative products that could prevent harm. But I discovered that sometimes innovations could experience delay when we aren’t quite open-minded to their potential. As a fire marshal with authority to approve new or alternative methods, in reflection I could have been more open to different approaches if I had better understood my authority and even responsibility to use available performance codes to solve problems. 

(1) There are many laboratories and engineering organizations in business to test alternative materials or methods to determine if they perform in a satisfactory manner to comply with the intent of code and provide code administrators with reports to help them consider approval. (Photo courtesy of UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute.)

 

A community’s code administrator should be prepared to evaluate new inventions, advancements, and technology in the execution of his duties. Code administrators are the gatekeepers who decide if modifications of buildings, systems, and equipment meet the safe intent of our codes. The majority of plans or proposals related to construction or use of equipment regulated by the codes conform closely to the prescriptive language of the codes. When they don’t conform, the code administrator must use performance to determine if a proposal is code compliant. Forward-thinking people wrote our codes, so code administrators have all the tools necessary to step outside the script and consider alternative approaches that comply with the intent of codes. Code administrators seeking to know more about the area of performance codes are encouraged to attend classes at the National Fire Academy (NFA) like the fundamental course “Evaluating Performance-Based Designs.” This and other classes, including online courses, provide the needed background a code administrator can use in working through challenges that arise related to alternative and equivalent considerations.                                                             

Why are alternative approaches necessary? Because we may have breakthroughs in understanding new ways to deal with problems that we may have never envisioned. Problems, especially fires, can be costly, and why wouldn’t we want to reduce loss? Prevent a fire if possible. If a fire cannot be prevented, stop it with the least amount of loss possible. Consider just a few fire problems that plague us, then let’s review a couple of interesting solutions available right now that could help reduce the risk of these problems.

Several concerning trends in home safety call for new ways to better manage the increasing danger to both residents and firefighters. Cooking fires continue to be a critical home fire problem, persisting year after year in national statistics as the top home fire cause and killing an average of 500 people a year according to the NFPA. Research by the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) Firefighter Safety Research Institute describes how home fires are increasing in their intensity partly because of open floor plan design, less compartmentation, and increased volatility and toxicity of furnishings resulting in less time for occupants to escape safely. Increasing older adult populations, most aging in place, increase the potential for vulnerable people at risk to themselves and others. Engineering and design professionals see these dangerous problems as opportunities and use their expertise to create new technology to reduce risk. But new products and technology arriving so quickly may position them ahead of adopted code and standard versions and become a challenge for how to regulate their use. Code administrators will be called on to evaluate and approve new products, methods, and materials despite the fact they may not conform to prescriptive code language of model codes.

Here are a couple of fire protection products that have a chance with their innovation to solve problems immediately. The Smart Burner by Pioneering Technology Incorporated, a Canadian corporation, and the Automist Smartscan fire suppression system Plumis, from the United Kingdom, are two examples. I observed a demonstration of Pioneering’s electric stove cooking burner technology at the NFPA Conference and Expo in Orlando Florida in 2006 while walking through the exhibition. Pioneering was at the time marketing a product called Safe T Element, an early version of the Smart Burner.

(2) The Smart Burner from Pioneering Technology Corp. controls burner temperature, keeping it below an energy level that would result in the contents igniting. (Photo courtesy of Pioneering Technology Corp.)

 

The Smart Burner (photo 2) replaces the original equipment manufacturer’s electric coil element with one that monitors the temperature of the burner and cooking surface and reduces the burner’s energy if it gets too high, preventing it from reaching the threshold of a dangerous fire. A stove cooktop (photo 3) outfitted with Smart Burner technology could offer an affordable retrofit to reduce the risk of cooking fires.

(3) Stove cook tops can be retrofitted with Smart Burner technology to reduce the risk of cooking fires. (Photo courtesy of Pioneering Technology Corp.)

 

Another technology that has risk reduction promise in the built environment is the Automist Smartscan. Automist Smartscan is a pre-engineered fire protection system that integrates functions such as fire detection (using heat detectors), an integrated nozzle scanner that sweeps a room or area with an infrared sensor to determine fire conditions for the best position of the nozzle to apply a robust fire attack, and a water supply that is  pump operated to quickly direct a high-volume dense fog at the fire. Product literature describes the technology’s effectiveness at covering a room even when obstructions may hide the fire by use of  “high momentum vertical spray orientation with a horizontal trajectory ensures that even shielded fires are saturated with a turbulent flow of mist, controlling the fire.”

(4) Automist Smartscan testing on a grease fire in a stove cooktop pan. (Photo courtesy of Richard Merck, Q-Dot Engineering.) When I was introduced to the Automist Smartscan, I immediately saw an answer to targeting residential occupants that are a danger to themselves and those around them and who have no place else to go. There are people who have a range of risky behaviors such as heavy cigarette smoking, inattentive cooking, collecting and hoarding, and substance abuse that could unintentionally start a fire that endangers themselves and others.

When I was introduced to the Automist Smartscan, I immediately saw an answer to targeting residential occupants that are a danger to themselves and those around them and who have no place else to go. There are people who have a range of risky behaviors such as heavy cigarette smoking, inattentive cooking, collecting and hoarding, and substance abuse that could unintentionally start a fire that endangers themselves and others.

 

(5) The Automist Smartscan nozzle and sensor. When fire is detected, the sensor directs the nozzle to the area of developing flames and activates a robust plume of high-pressure mist. (Photo courtesy of Richard Merck, Q-Dot Engineering.)

Both technologies have clearly defined safety purposes; design specifications; several years of evidence that they perform as they are intended as fire protection devices; and performance-based reports, listings, and approvals by authorities having jurisdiction. Despite the necessary credentials and evidence-based performance, these and other innovative technologies sometimes are not allowed to be used partly because of code administrators’ unease or lack of awareness of the flexibility built into codes for times when code considerations don’t exactly fit into the prescriptive code model.

I have faced the unknown direction of what to do when things don’t fit. New construction methods, materials, and fire protection systems can be a challenge faced by building and fire code administrators who may be asked to evaluate them for appropriateness and safety during their work. This is especially true when there is no track record to review in making decisions. While code administrators may welcome the answer to long standing safety problems in their community, they may feel they are out on the proverbial limb if they approve products that are outside the scope of their adopted codes and standards. Performance code language offers everyone the flexibility to consider alternative approaches while retaining assurance that safety is the highest consideration.

Let’s review a bit about codes and their flexibility. Approximately 3,800 years ago, Hammurabi had one of the earliest examples of a performance code. The performance part was constructing a building that was safe and did not collapse. The builder or a family member could be punished by death if a building owner or family member died in a collapse. A lot of motivation for quality and safety was built into those tough laws. From that point, the experience of building safety grew, and codes and standards evolved. The process for the development of the codes and standards has traditionally been more retrospective then prospective and based often on the answer to experience of loss. Existing building and fire codes are mostly made up of prescriptive language that specifically addresses requirements of what is included and what is excluded. From a code administration standpoint, prescriptive codes are cut and dry: There is compliance or there is not compliance. It is more challenging for a code administrator to consider alternatives and equivalencies to code conformity. But the good news is our codes have been very well written and include strong provisions for those areas outside the parameters of the code script. Code language in all the model building and fire codes requires the administrator to use performance in considering alternative ways to meet compliance when the prescriptive language doesn’t fit.

The International Building Code (IBC) is the most commonly adopted building code in the United States and was a culmination of mainly three legacy building codes around the that included the BOCA National Building Code (Building Officials and Code Administrators, BOCA); Uniform Building Code (International Conference of Building Officials, ICBO), and Standard Building Code (Southern Building Code Congress International, SBCCI). IBC specifically establishes the authority for code administration. Administration and authority are keys to managing the challenges of alternative and equivalent compliance and are described in IBC Chapter 1-Scope and Administration, Section 104.10 Modifications from the 2015 edition of the IBC are as follows:

“Where there are practical difficulties involved in carrying out the provisions of this code, the building official shall have the authority to grant modifications for individual cases, upon application of the owner or the owner’s authorized agent, provided that the building official shall first find that special individual reason makes the strict letter of this code impractical, the modification is in compliance with the intent and purpose of this code and that such modification does not lessen health, accessibility, life and fire safety or structural requirements. The details of action granting modifications shall be recorded and entered in the files of the department of building safety.”

This is a powerful statement implying that since the prescriptive language does not fit a situation, then a judgment would be made as to what modification of the script would be accepted and approved by the building official. Soon after in the IBC the code gets more specific of the recommended practice for managing a modification. IBC’s Section 104.11-Alternative materials, design and methods of construction and equipment directs that building officials shall approve alternative materials, designs, and methods of construction when the official finds they comply with the code. The building official in considering this requirement may need to consult with services of specific experts such as engineering practices or accredited laboratories for help in this consideration. A code administrator may have the expertise to evaluate the performance of alternatives and equivalents but more often would have third party experts either perform actual testing to evaluate the performance or gather any existing evidence of past testing and approvals and submit this information to the code administrator in the form of a report the administrator could use to make the decision. It is important for the code administrator to recognize that there are many credentialed agencies that specialize in these types of services.

Problems are inevitable, and our codes are written to solve problems. But sometimes the cut and dry nature of the prescriptive code language makes it less flexible when considering unique alternatives and equivalencies. Fortunately, well-thought-out planning and writing of the model codes included language that allows the code administrator as the authority having jurisdiction to approve alternative methods and materials when modifications of plans and use of new equipment are proposed. Code administrators have significant authority and responsibility to keep an open mind when considering alternatives. The use of third party testing laboratories and engineering organizations can provide expertise in conducting tests that gauge the performance of a proposed method or material, then provide the code administrator with the necessary data and evidence of performance in the form of written reports that must be retained in permanent records if approval is granted.

For more information, refer to:

Marty Ahrens, NFPA's "Home Fires Involving Cooking Equipment," November 2017.

Steve Kerber, UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute, Analysis of Changing Residential Fire Dynamics and its Implications on Firefighter Operational Timeframes (2012).

International Code Council, International Building Code–2015.

Richard Bukowski and Takeyoshi Tanaka, Toward the Goal of a Performance Fire Code, from the periodical Fire and Materials, Volume 15, pp 175 – 180 (1991).

Pioneering Technology, Incorporated (Smart Burner) https://www.pioneeringtech.com.

Plumis, Incorporated (Automist Smartscan) https://plumis.com.

 

Mike Love worked for 33 years as a firefighter in Montgomery County, Maryland, retiring as a deputy chief. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland, an Executive Fire Officer, and a certified pubic manager. In 2004, he created the online fire marshal’s forum ePARADE and has continued as a volunteer creating and moderating online forums for various fire and life safety groups. Love has written several articles and weblogs and is the author of Robertson’s Introduction to Fire Prevention, 8th Ed.

 

 

Pennwell