Plenty to Be Thankful For

When I look back at our great accomplishments during the International Code Council (ICC) Code Hearing in Baltimore last month, I feel elated, proud, but most importantly thankful. Elated for our victory that will better protect our citizens and make our communities safer for many years to come. Proud to be a member of the fire service and to witness the depth of commitment and the level of the fire service participation in the code development process. When I look back at our great accomplishments during the International Code Council (ICC) Code Hearing in Baltimore last month, I feel elated, proud, but most importantly thankful.

Elated for our victory that will better protect our citizens and make our communities safer for many years to come. Proud; to be a member of the fire service and to witness the depth of commitment and the level of the fire service participation in the code development process. And thankful for the strong support from our fellow public servants, the building officials, who are committed to the safety of their communities just as we are.

The building officials proved that although they rarely receive the well-deserved recognition for their efforts in protecting our public through enforcement of the construction codes, they indeed are the true silent defenders in our communities. Undoubtedly, without their support, we would not have been able to succeed.

This triumph forged an even stronger alliance between the fire service and the building officials. This was a great victory not only for us, but most importantly, for our citizens.

There are hundreds of dedicated fire service members that deserve our sincere gratitude for their long-term commitment and participation in this grand event. And, it is of utmost importance to recognize the contributions of our building official peers and thank them for their support. We must not lose sight that, as public servants, fire service and building officials serve the same master, the public.

As a result of this cooperation and collaboration between the fire officials and building officials, our public scored a solid victory in Baltimore.

As you recall, last year, at the ICC's Final Action Hearing in Minneapolis, we made a historic and monumental accomplishment for the safety of our public all across the nation. Two of the most important proposals that were voted were the requirement for installation of carbon monoxide detectors and also the requirement to install residential fire sprinkler systems in all new homes.

But since then, our well-respected opponents, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has shown their intense dissatisfaction with those great life safety accomplishments and has fought against them every step of the way.

After the NAHB's appeal to the ICC Board of Directors failed last December, NAHB shifted their focus and started mounting pressure on the states and the local jurisdictions, to prevent them from adopting the 2009 edition of the International Residential Code (IRC); or maybe at the very least persuade them to yank out the residential fire sprinkler requirements out of their local codes.

The NAHB was successful in a handful of states; Michigan and Texas being the biggest. And in the other states and jurisdictions that they were not successful, instead, they used the delay tactic. There, the NAHB has persuaded the building officials to take a wait and see approach. They wanted the building officials to wait until after the code hearing in Baltimore where there were several proposals (RB53, RB54, RB 56, and RB57) aimed at eliminating the residential fire sprinkler requirements in the 2012 edition of the codes.

NAHB was hoping that since four out of the 11 voting members of the ICC's Residential Building Code Committee (RBCC) were appointed directly by them, and considering that two of the remaining members had consistently voted with them in opposing the residential fire sprinklers, that NAHB would have a good chance of disapproving the residential fire sprinkler requirement at the committee level. That would have then put the burden on us once again, to overturn the committee's decision by obtaining a two-thirds majority floor vote.

It was against this backdrop that the fire service representatives attended the hearing in Baltimore last month. The battle lines were drawn and the stakes were high. Success in Baltimore was of utmost importance and pivotal for both sides. Yet by all means, not the final and decisive victory for either side. After all, the battle at the national level will be fought at least one more time during the final action hearing next year in Dallas from May 14 - 23; and at the state and local jurisdictions the battles could go on for many years to come.

With that said, it was indeed a great surprise and a proud moment, to see in front of almost 2,000 ICC members, that the Residential Building Code Committee (RBCC) members, voted seven to four against the proposals to remove the residential fire sprinklers out of the code. As you might have guessed already, those four votes in support of removing the residential fire sprinklers came from the four NAHB appointees on the committee.

Failing at the committee level, our opponents then asked for a floor vote. It was a joyous moment when a sea of many hundreds of public servants and fire professionals raised their hands in support of the residential fire sprinklers. After glancing at the audience for a brief moment, and without even feeling the need for an electronic vote count, the moderator declared "that motion clearly fails." A solid victory by all accounts; and a historical accomplishment for the fire service and our building official peers alike.

In this single significant event, I personally found plenty to be thankful for:

The most important one to acknowledge is the depth of commitment and the incredible camaraderie between all of the various fire service organizations. This single event demonstrated the dedication of many national organizations to the cause of fire safety in our country. The big guns were all there, and it was a joyous event to hear them all roar. The International Associationof Fire Chiefs (IAFC) was there in full force, and all their sections and divisions put their support behind this effort. The International Asoociation of Fire Fighters (IAFF) was there and with their strong participation they clearly acknowledged the fact that fire sprinklers save firefighters' lives too.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) was there and put their support and gave a helping hand to the ICC, who is their main competitor in the code development arena. It was beautiful to see that, for the sake of better protecting our communities and our public from the wrath of fire, that they put their not so friendly rivalry of the past behind them, and their relationship has now evolved to a much higher degree of cooperation. Many of the burn survivors and the burn safety advocacy groups were there in mass and participated in this historical vote. The contributions and active participation of these grassroots organizations were instrumental to the successful outcome of this long overdue public safety measure.

For me, it was a proud moment to see that Glenn Gaines, the U.S.Fire Administration's (USFA) Deputy Fire Administrator, was the first speaker to walk to the floor microphone and declare the USFA's strong support for the residential fire sprinkler requirement. And what a great job Glenn did in establishing our case and depicting our professional obligation to better protecting our communities and public throughout the land.

Even though symbolic, yet it is still heart warming and a moral booster indeed, to have our country's deputy fire chief take command and lead the charge in our battles. It sends a very strong message of national leadership. And to us in the fire service, it also shows the revival and emergence of the USFA to fill the leadership role outlined by the famous 1973 America Burning Report.

I don't think anyone could have done a better job in organizing and leading the fire service organizations on the residential fire sprinkler issue than my own mentor Ronny Coleman. What a wonderful job Ronny has done during the past three decades and more, in nourishing the support and finally achieving this great accomplishment. Undoubtedly he is the father and founder of this movement.

I would be remiss not to give the greatest of accolades to my friend Jeff Shapiro. Jeff has proven once again, and this time not only to the fire prevention and code development type folks, but to the entire fire service in our country (if not indeed globally), that when it comes to the construction codes, he indeed is the guru and the greatest strategists of all, period. His hard work, endless energy, professionalism, commitment, dedication, and calm and cool leadership style proved to be essential for this hardest of all task of getting the residential fire sprinkler requirements into the codes. In my mind, no one else could have done it better than Jeff.

I believe that for the fire service, our battles in the recent years to adopt the residential fire sprinkler requirement into the construction codes, has been an impetus for change that has played a key role in unifying us all in support of a great cause that saves the lives of our civilians and firefighters alike. And I am thankful for it. The momentum is behind us, and we are now better organized and more determined to better protect our communities.

I believe that we in the fire service are at the tipping point, and finally, yet gradually, we are recognizing the importance of having a much higher priority for fire prevention. We are now acknowledging the pearls of wisdom in the recommendations of the 1973 America Burning Report in reducing our national fire loss. Our recent battles on the residential fire sprinkler fronts, was indeed pivotal and only strengthened our will to take an in-depth strategic look in providing a higher level of service to our communities and better protecting our citizens. This is an invaluable battle-born maturity that might not have come up otherwise, if we weren't confronted by such a well-resourced and determined opponent bent on defeating us every step of the way. We can only be thankful of our opponents that have unified us.

And finally I am thankful for the professionalism of all our peers at the ICC staff that have shown patience and grace throughout this process. It is not over yet by any means. But, the support of our building official friends was heartwarming indeed, and demonstrates the commitment necessary to succeed in the long run.

As public servants, it is our professional obligation as building officials and fire service members alike, to work hand in hand to provide the highest level of fire and life safety and community protection for our public. The ICC Hearing was a great depiction of such cooperation. Not only were all of the fire service organizations in our country unified in their stance; but there were also hundreds of progressive building officials that supported our cause, without whom success would undoubtedly not have been possible. I thank every one of them for their commitment to public safety. I told you we had plenty to be thankful for.

There is one building official though in particular, that I want to personally thank from the bottom of my heart. I have never met him, and I never even knew of him. But the passion and the level of deep commitment to the cause of public safety that Gary Lewis, the building official from Summit, NJ, displayed when he was at the microphone speaking in support of the residential fire sprinklers, demands the highest respect, admiration, and the tip of the hat. My brother Gary, thank you. You are a true silent defender.

AZARANG (OZZIE) MIRKHAH P.E., CBO, EFO, CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Protection Engineer for the City of Las Vegas Department of Fire & Rescue. Ozzie served on the national NFPA 13 Technical Committee for Sprinkler System Discharge Design Criteria and serves on the IAFC Fire Life Safety Section Board of Directors. He was the first recipient of the IAFC's Excellence in Fire and Life Safety Award in 2007. Ozzie has participated in two Radio@Firehouse podcasts: Six Days, Six Fires, 19 Children and 9 Adults Killed and Fire Marshal's Corner. You can reach Ozzie by e-mail at amirkhah@lasvegasnevada.gov.

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