What's at Stake?

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Danger is lurking and our firefighters must be aware and take immediate measures to protect their own safety along with the safety of the public they are sworn to protect. All firefighters across America must become fully aware of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) systematic behind the scene maneuvering in state legislatures which is intended to erode the rights of the jurisdictions to adopt and enhance building construction codes at the local levels. This indeed is an outrageous overreach and sets a terrible precedent.

Such maneuvering in manipulating the state legislatures has not gone unnoticed. The International Residential Code Fire Sprinkler Coalition (IRC) posted this news update on their website on Jan. 23:

"ATTENTION FIRE MARSHALS - Homebuilder tactic against residential sprinklers. It has come to our attention that homebuilders are beginning a move to prevent adoption of the 2009 IRC provisions for residential fire sprinklers by introducing state legislation that would block new local adoptions of these provisions. Such bills were recently filed in Arizona (HB2267) and North Dakota (SB2354)."

My focus in this article is not on the residential fire sprinklers. Although very important, they are only one small piece of the puzzle. This problem goes way beyond sprinklers. Believe me my friends; what's at stake is much higher than that. It is the safety of our public and our own firefighters. We must stop this disturbing trend now before it snowballs.

Today, the special interest groups want to discard the fire sprinkler requirements. But who knows what other provisions of the building construction codes they would want to yank out next? Fire protection and life safety provisions of the codes, may seem as expensive and unnecessary to these special interest groups opposing us. Those measures not only protect our public, but also our own firefighters.

Remember that all those fire safety provisions made it into the body of the codes as a direct result of many failures, losses, tragedies and thousands of fatalities. Those fire safety provisions in the national codes are the results of dedicated efforts of by many technical experts, building officials and fire marshals that spend many decades analyzing the failures and seeking technical solutions to address the fire safety problems.

And now, the special interest groups want the state legislators to grant them the right to adopt their own substandard building construction codes as they deem appropriate in serving their needs. And to make matters even worse, they want the OK to disallow the local jurisdictions from adopting a more stringent building construction code.

Honestly, I doubt that I am the only one who sees this as nothing more than "putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop." How would that enhance the safety of our public? What about the safety our firefighters?

Look at it this way. If they can pick and choose what they like or dislike, they would cherry pick and throw out most of the fire and life safety provisions in the codes since in their view those are cost prohibitive and unnecessary.

To use an analogy, that is like giving the truckers driving those big 18-wheelers the right to decide on the speed limits and all other pertinent highway traffic safety laws. How much sense does that make? Would that enhance the safety of our public? What's the difference here?

The main focus of this article is on our firefighters' safety. They are accustomed to routinely respond to the immediate emergencies and life threatening situations. Thus they are not intimidated when facing danger. They can in time mitigate any and all emergencies. But then, the flaw with that perspective is in downplaying the risk probabilities and dangers that are not immediate in nature. And not noticing or at least being much concerned about the adverse impacts of policies and regulations that in the long run could erode the safety of their communities, and their own.

So, let me be as blunt as I can. Our firefighters must wake up and smell the coffee, and recognize that the building construction codes have a very direct impact on their own safety.

After all, it isn't the fire station but the burning building that is truly our firefighters' real work environment. Structural integrity and safety of those buildings during the fire, are indeed directly relevant to all firefighters and their families who expect them back safe at the end of each shift.

That being said, our country's fire service leadership must unite and stand up, and not allow these special interest groups, who are notorious for lobbying, manipulating and skewing the political system in their favor to serve their financial interests, to decide for the safety of our communities and our firefighters.

Leadership of the major national fire service organizations are now aware and are taking measures to address these challenges. Earlier this year, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) issued a news release titled "Homebuilders Trying to Preempt Adoption of State and Local Sprinkler Regulations." It stated:

"The IAFC has learned that the homebuilders are starting an initiative to prevent local adoption of national standards that require residential sprinklers, by introducing state legislation that would block new code adoptions mandating residential fire-sprinkler requirements... "We have spent considerable time working to help save lives by voting in favor of including residential sprinklers in the model codes," said IAFC President Larry J. Grorud, CFO, MIFireE. "We know there is significant work to be completed to ensure sprinkler requirements are adopted across the country, and we will not let this anti-residential sprinkler legislation deter our efforts to reduce fire loss in America. I urge all fire service members to commit to defeating such legislation. Fire sprinklers save lives, and the public needs to know how important this is for their families, communities and the fire service."

And similarly, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in their newly launched website "Fire Sprinkler Initiative" issued a "Legislative Alert."

"New legislation is threatening the adoption of home fire sprinkler provisions for new one- and two-family dwellings. Across the United States, sprinkler opponents are pushing state legislation that would restrict a community's ability to make its own decision about model safety codes for new construction. The legislation would prevent any community from implementing any new sprinkler mandates in one- and two-family homes. If it becomes law, such legislation will put lives at risk. "

Once again my friends, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The problem is much bigger than just the residential fire sprinkler requirements for the new homes. That is merely a cloak under which our opponents are advancing their goals of having control over the adoption of the building construction codes, to suite their own needs. If the fire service doesn't take immediate corrective actions to change this dangerous course, this could jeopardize the life and safety of our firefighters for decades to come.

One of the first in the fire service to clearly see the big picture and realize what is really at stake, is my good friend Shane Ray, fire chief of the Pleasant View (TN) fire department. Shane recognized this dangerous trend early on just as it began to develop only a few weeks ago. Shane's great article titled "Protect Our Homes, Maintain Home Rule" published quite timely in the March 15 issue of the IAFC's On Scene. This article is a must read for all fire service members. Due to its importance, I have presented it here in its entirety.

"National leadership is calling on leaders at the state and local level. Calling all fire service personnel to action!

Individuals and organizations across our country are taking action that limits our ability to best serve our communities. These special interest groups are introducing legislation to state government that limits a local fire departments' ability to provide fire and life safety techniques and technologies, thus protecting our citizens and firefighters.

A recent IAFC member alert notified us that "Homebuilders Trying to Preempt Adoption of State and Local Sprinkler Regulations." Their attempts are now going beyond fire sprinklers. They're also trying to ensure local jurisdictions aren't able to adopt model building and fire codes stronger than those adopted by the state.

This could severely limit items in the International Code Council's body of codes and the National Fire Protection Association's codes and standard especially designed to protect citizens and firefighters.

The divisions, sections, committees and general members of the IAFC must unite to fight these attempts to restrict local adoption of fire and building codes. The health, safety and well-being of our citizens depend on prevention and mitigation efforts before the emergency, which is when our emergency response kicks in.

This prevention and mitigation to the built environment is best accomplished with the adoption and enforcement of national, model building and fire codes. The International Code Council is the predominant building-code organization in our country and regulates the construction of most new buildings. The NFPA is the predominant codes and standards-making organization to ensure life safety from fire.

These model codes are developed at a national level by professionals from local levels, intended to be adopted and enforced by professionals at the local level.

As the fire chief of a local jurisdiction, you should be able to influence and encourage the adoption of the International Building Code, International Fire Code, International Residential Code, NFPA Life Code, The Uniform Fire Code or any version of the many available codes that reduce risk to citizens and firefighters in your community.

It is encouraged that our state governments promulgate codes that establish a minimum for the state, especially to cover those areas lacking any codes. However, it shouldn't be the role of the state to limit our local ability to improve the level of protection to our citizens and firefighters.

House Bill 2267 in Arizona, Senate Bill 2354 in North Dakota and House Bill 554 in Texas are all aimed at limiting a local jurisdictions ability to adopt and enhance codes. Don't lose your right as a fire chief to best serve. Don't lose your community's ability to best determine the building and fire code package best suited to protect the citizens and firefighters. Model building and fire codes protect homes to high-rises, and it's our responsibility to ensure our maximum capability to provide the best possible service to our community.

Get involved! Join forces with your local and state organizations to unite and ensure the homebuilders and other special interest groups don't take away our right to best serve the citizens and firefighters in our community. Visit www.iafc.org/flss for more information on how to be involved."

This article is a "call to arms" for all fire service members. We must unite, take a strong stance, and get actively involved in defeating these ill-intended attempts by the special interests groups that are bent to write the building construction codes to suite their meager business needs which could result in a reducing the safety of our communities and jeopardize our firefighters and the public alike.

Advocacy for fire prevention, and stepping up our public education efforts at this time are even more important than ever before. We in the fire service must educate the public and their elected officials, that the codes and standards developed by the internationally recognized organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the International Code Council (ICC) are the accumulation of decades of failure analysis, research, testing, technical evolution, building construction knowledge and field experience.

And the open, well established code development processes in both these organizations have passed the tests of time and trail.

Remind them that every single year, hundreds of our fire service representatives across the country actively participate in these code development processes. Cumulatively, they spend thousands of hours preparing, reviewing, researching, analyzing, and developing codes.

Remind them that the fire service members and our fellow building officials are the public servants tasked with protecting our public and our communities. And that contrary to the private sector, we don't have any vested financial interests in the building construction codes.

The primary tactic that these special interest groups use in approaching the state legislators and local politicians is to claim that these cost prohibitive and unfair governmental burdens, are restricting their abilities to build new homes thus creating more jobs which would help with the current economy recovery efforts to revive our communities. They play the sympathy card by claiming to be the victims of these current economic conditions and foreclosures. Yet don't forget that in reality they were at the epicenter of this crisis in the first place.

Homebuilders are not building new homes and are not able to sell their existing inventory not because of the residential fire sprinkler requirement; but because people are now unemployed and can not get the credit to buy the homes.

They were building and selling at high prices like there was no tomorrow only a few years back when variable loans were way too easy to obtain. And that was the major contributing factor to our current economic misery -- not the residential fire sprinkler requirement that was adopted in the IRC less than simonths ago which will not go to effect until January 2011.

The real victims then are the American people. Our state level politicians must be reminded of these facts constantly.

When approaching the state legislatures these special interest groups cloak their true intention behind the flag of freedom, democracy and the right to chose for each state to determine their appropriate levels of fire protection and life safety. And yet, hypocritically they want to deprive the local jurisdictions in those states, the very same rights to make the determination for their level of acceptable risk and safety.

We all believe in our American way of freedom of choice, democracy, and the rights of states. But then by the same token, as a public servant, I believe that providing for the safety of our public and our communities, is the main responsibility of the local government. Logic then dictates that the fire service and our fellow public servants, the building officials, should be the ones responsible for establishing the levels of fire protection and life safety in our communities, and not the homebuilders and other special interest groups.

I believe that in the absence of a true set of national building construction codes in our country, it is indeed every states' right and very appropriate for the states to adopt and establish their own building construction code based on the ICC and NFPA codes and standards. But then these state codes must only be the minimum, and not the maximum. Each of the local jurisdictions then has the right to exceed those minimum state codes, but is prohibited to be less restrictive. That is what we are doing in most of the states right now.

In his article titled "NFPA's Take: The Importance of Speaking Out About Fire Sprinklers,"Jim Shannon, NFPA's president, underlines the importance of this issue and the threat that it presents to the safety of our communities.

"State legislation being introduced and debated all across the country could prevent these life-saving requirements from ever being adopted in local communities, putting the lives of Americans at risk. The threat from these legislative attacks is real and immediate. Sprinkler opponents are working to undermine those safety provisions. In several states, sprinkler opponents are pushing bills that will prohibit local communities from adopting home fire sprinkler requirements in their jurisdictions. In other states, sprinkler opponents are even working to change the structure of statewide code adopting authorities, removing fire safety officials from this important decision-making process. Though the tactics of sprinkler opponents may differ from state to state, one thing is certain - we must do everything in our power to stop these efforts to undermine public safety and reduce input from the fire service. We must protect a community's ability to choose for itself the right model safety code."

Our firefighters all across the land should be alerted to this dangerous trend. What is at stake is much larger than residential fire sprinklers. What is at stake is not only the safety of our public, but our very own firefighters.

My brother and sisters in the fire service; ask yourself, do you really trust the special interest groups to keep your safety in mind, and provide you the necessary level of fire protection when you are going offensive in the interior of these lightweight construction buildings? And then, ask your loved ones who await your safe arrival after each shift, this very same question.

What's your answer? Who cares more for the safety of our firefighters, than our own firefighters? If not you, then who should take a strong stance against these dangerous legislative maneuvers? How long are we going allow the special interest groups to play the "Russian Roulette" with the safety of our own firefighters?

Now that you know what's at stake; I hope that you agree that it is up to us in the fire service to stand up, unite and fight for the safety of our public and our own firefighters.

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AZARANG (OZZIE) MIRKHAH P.E., CBO, EFO, 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. To read Ozzie's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. 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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