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Fire Code Enforcement

What’s “Right” and What’s “Wrong”?

A special guest post by Jon Nisja

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:

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

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 benefitting 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?

About the Author:  Jon has over 32 years of fire service experience; he started working in the areas of fire prevention and fire investigation in 1982. He has served as Fire Marshal for two communities and as a Fire Safety Supervisor with the Minnesota State Fire Marshal Division since 1990. He supervises fire code development, the fire protection section, fire loss data section, and public fire safety education for the State Fire Marshal Division.

He is a former President of the Fire Marshals Association of Minnesota and is also a past president of the International Fire Marshals Association.

Jon has authored chapters in three books. His areas of fire protection interest include fire safety history, means of egress, fire protection systems, building construction, and using performance measures to show effectiveness.

{ 6 comments… add one }

  • Jim Maldonado March 11, 2011, 4:48 pm

    This article really hits the mark. Even though these departments maintain the names of the Building Safety Department or the Fire Prevention Department, their goals no longer to appear to provide for safe buildings or to prevent fires. I am also involved in the NFPA Code development process, and have found that the process is heavily loaded to the benefit of the manufacturers or the special interests. I wrote an article a few years back for IAEI NEWS, that was titled “Is Your City Stealing From You”. As cities or governmental bodies we have contracted with our citizens to perform a certain service. If the City takes the money for this service and then does not do the promised safety inspections nor provide for safe buildings, they are in essence, stealing from their citizens. Especially since the laws of the Cities demand that the citizens get the required permits or inspections at a cost, or go to jail or have their business shut down.

    You are right, in the statement that at with the retirement of us baby boomers, there will be a great loss of institutional knowledge. Not only that, but it appears that the next generation coming up does not have life-safety at heart.

  • C. W. Boss, Fire Inspector II, March 11, 2011, 9:15 pm

    Mr. Nisja,

    You are quite correct in your indictment. I began my 41st year in the Fire Service this past January and I’ve had the same concerns for some time. There may be good reasons for changing or adjusting the code from time to time, but I often wonder if we are improving them by what we do or are the changes just an excuse to sell copies of a “new improved code book” whose purpose is more to keep revenue flowing into the coffers of the publishing entity than any real improvement garnered in lifesafety by the end user.

    Regulation as a whole has gotten way out of hand in our country. We boast about “our freedoms” but it seems that more and more we’re binding ourselves in chains that we forge with pens and pencils in our hands as we make each successive publishing more and more restrictive.

    We have to ask ourselves to what ultimate end? We have so many codes, regulations, rules. laws, policies and the like that many companies can’t afford or don’t wish to afford to do business here any more. We’re regulating ourselves out of jobs and futures for our children and grandchildren. Continued increases in regulation stiffles the desire for any business person, company or investor to do business here.

    So there’s no need to build and protect a manufacturing plant to make products, nor is there a need to build a warehouse in which to store the finished products or build a mercantile outlet to sell the products, so much regulation has been put in place every step of the way, that from start to finish everyone throws up their hands in frustration and says it’s no longer worth the trouble, we can’t cover our costs, never mind make a profit or pay our taxes. I’m going fishin’!

    We as a service, we as a country, we as a people need to rethink what it is we’re doing and why. We’ve lost sight of why we’re here. We can have an optimum of cost/benefit for the dollar invested in lifesafety, we have to realize as the insurance companies have that there will always be a certain level of risk involved in anything we do, we just have to manage the magnitude of that risk so it doesn’t overwhelm the protections that are in place. The same goes for codes and regulations of all kinds … what’s the point of having a perfectly safe building if no one can afford to build it or maintain and use it after it’s done?

    I don’t know about you Jon, but I’m goin’ to get a fishing license, a carton of nightcrawlers and a fishing pole and pronounce the country “safe enough” as far as the fire and building codes are concerned and I’m going fishing!

  • Mr. Wayne March 12, 2011, 11:36 am

    Jon Nisja & C.W. Boss,

    I don’t know if it’s proper email etiquette in addressing the author of this article and someone who has already commented on this post at the same time but, I find both of your comments to be spot on. I felt strongly compelled to respond because I feel your pain daily.

    I have been in the private fire protection industry for 12 years now. I currently work for Simplex Grinnell and have been with them for 10 years and the last 5 years I’ve been doing NFPA 25 fire inspections. I started installing fire sprinklers as a helper, moved to Florida and starting into service installation and repair, moved to foreman before a vehicle accident took me out of the field. I went into plans and permitting for the company before finally ending up with Inspections.

    I really didn’t get to see the political side of things involving regulation, insurance companies and the fire codes until I starting running plans, performing site surveys and submitting permits. It was amazing not only in how different each on the five counties municipalities were but, it was mainly their interpretation or lack there of with the fire codes to include adopted State codes. There is no consistency. Never has been and never will be unfortunately. I guess I need to look at the cost/benefit analysis that was mentioned in doing my own inspections. The question there in lies; do I have that authority knowing how the AHJ in that jurisdiction is enforcing (or not) fire codes.

    I don’t want to get off track of the article that Mr. Nisja wrote but, not only is bringing new code books out every other year just another way to generate funds for the publisher and the company representing the book, it also cost jurisdictions and individuals like myself to purchase these books. Why can’t they just come out with one book with all of the code changes for that given two year period instead of having a new alarm book, a new sprinkler book, a new inspection book. Unfortuantely sales of the new code books brings in millions of dollars for NFPA and that pays for the six and seven figure salaries of those that sit on the boards that passes or writes these codes. I would be just as protective of my job and find ways to keep the money coming in and justify new code books every other year if I was in their shoes. Their justification is that they save lives. My justification is that the code books we’ve had for some time as Mr. Nisja wrote has saved lives, not the minute changes we get today that are erroding away at the true purpose and meaning behind having the fire codes in the first place.

    In our company we use the codes to generate profits. The codes are our stock investors bread and butter. So coming in from the private sector I can tell you Mr. Nisja and Mr. Boss that the day profits overtake life safety are here and probably have been for some time. As private fire protection inspectors we are pushed to meet numbers. Either management, branch, regional or national numbers. There are stockholders investing money that we make a profit. There is always a number to meet and a lot of times to exceed. When we don’t meet those numbers were pushed that much harder to get things inspected and caught up whatever the means.

    I am worried and concerned about the items addressed in your article and the comment posted by Mr. Boss. Both of you speak much truth in what is foreseen in this industry. My other concern is where so much regulation and politics comes into play that more and more private sector inspectors start inspecting with less regard for the code and more for the business end of it. We say we are life safety but, that’s being said with the reality that we have to meet budget goals as expected at a corporate level. I’m not against fair business and making a profit but, when lives and property are being looked at as dollar signs that’s where I have a problem.

    The way I’m protected as a private fire inspector? It’s called insurance, fine print, the liability agreement on the back of our forms. Accidents can be good things in that when they happen and companies are found liable the insurance company can investigate and find a way to push a new code to prevent that liability in the future. For them it’s just as much about profits as it is for the fire protection companies that they insure.

    For the most part I’m thankful I have a job whether I agree with it or not. I’m thankful for gentleman like yourselves that see things as I do with the industry and where it’s been turning for some time. The last Florida Fire Sprinkler Association conference I went to should have read “How to turn a profit for the fire sprinkler industry in Florida”. Was nothing more than a training seminar for salesman, much more than life safety. The last thing I’m thankful for is several fishing rods, a tackle box and plenty of water to fish in here.

  • Shane Walker March 14, 2011, 3:07 pm

    I’ve enjoyed all comments. I, to, am an old code nerd (sounds like a cowboy song), 25 years worth. From a little different perspective, I’ve been an inspector all 25 years and from the ground floor, the observations are similar. So, as told to me by many at the top, “Don’t bring me problems unless you have a solution.” So?

    First thing that comes to the brain of a rank-and-file type, perhaps it’s time to take a step back, say like 1973, back when the Uniform Fire Code came into being. Develop a code that once again is:
    Easy to carry and reference in the field and
    Contains the very basics of fire and life safety maintenance.

  • Susan Martinez August 5, 2011, 1:48 pm

    Mr. Nisja, great article! I would love to add your quote after Benjamin Franklins quote on my email signature. I believe it’s so well said and think that each email I send out has reaches out to those many people unaware of the lives fire prevention codes save each day. My signature line would say:

    “Laws too gentle are seldom obeyed; laws too severe are seldom executed.” –
    Benjamin Franklin. “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” – Jon Nisja

    Thank you.

  • Bill Walsh September 2, 2011, 6:01 pm

    Jon: I enjoyed your post greatly. I retired as a building official about nine years ago. So I had minimal experience with the “I” codes that replaced the former BOCA & CABO codes. Then several years ago I took a part-time job, one day per week, in a small rural town and came face to face with a set of codes on steroids. In an apparent effort to produce comprehensive codes applicable to every place from Hawaii to Maine, they have created monsterous tomes that violate the law of diminishing returns. They are overly complex and even misleading. We have failed every standard of common sense and created a situation where liabilities outnumber the assets sought.

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