New Life Safety Codes Increase Safety

There has been a lot of hype around the recent International Code Council (ICC), Final Action Hearings which took place in September in Minnesota. The discussion across the web was for the fire service to get involved to make changes to the international residential code and ensure the safety of firefighters by requiring residential sprinklers in one- and two-family dwellings.

The September Final Action Hearings were the culmination of years of work which started with thousands of code changes which were submitted by inspectors, code officials, interested parties, and citizens. The code changes are correlated by the staff of the ICC and then heard by the appropriate committee. Some of the code changes have been in the works for over 10 years as they have been submitted, rejected, and then modified to be submitted once again.

After the committee hears testimony on code proposals, there are opportunities for comments on the committee's findings. These comments are published as the agenda for the final action hearings. In a code cycle there may be two final action hearings, the previous hearing was in Rochester, NY, in 2007.

You may wonder, how does all of this affect firefighter safety? If you did not know, the ICC publishes code documents which are utilized all over the United States. The documents serve as the building, plumbing, mechanical, or fire codes (there are over 12 published documents by the ICC for code officials). The intent of many of the documents state:

101.3 Intent. The purpose of this code is to establish the minimum requirements consistent with nationally recognized good practice for providing a reasonable level of life safety and property protection from the hazards of fire, explosion or dangerous conditions in new and existing buildings, structures and premises and to provide safety to fire fighters and emergency responders during emergency operations.

Pay special attention to the last line of the intent section which indicates "to provide safety to fire fighters and emergency responders during emergency operations." Firefighter safety is a topic that was widely heard and is part of the tremendous effort of many fire service organizations to get involved in the code development process. These efforts included members of the National Association of State Fire Marshals; International Association of Fire Chiefs, Fire and Life Safety Group; the International Association of Fire Fighters, and countless state organizations, such as California, Michigan, Virginia, and numerous others. These fire service groups have worked to provide solid code changes and build partnerships to influence code change.

The following are just a select sample of the code changes that are of interest to firefighters. Keep in mind that these are part of the 2009 code documents and would be enforceable once the code is adopted by the appropriate municipality.

  • F60 07/08 - Evacuation drills for factory occupancies. Education is a key component of any fire prevention bureau. The code will add requirements for evacuation drills for almost every business and the major change will now require factory occupancies to evacuate during a drill once a year.
  • F61 07/08 - Many fire service jurisdictions are working with their local schools during lock down drills. The fire code adds language which will allow specific language on response to fire alarms and these drills must be approved by the local fire code official.
  • F42 (Also see F58) 07/08 - Polyethylene dumpsters and laundry carts were debated on the proper fire safety of these items. The revised code language will not allow the dumpsters in the building and have limitations on the spacing away from the building. The laundry carts will also require additional protection and are similar to the ones found at many hospitals.
  • F84 07/08 - Have you ever been in a fire at a high-rise facility and counted the number of people in the fire command center? Thanks to a code change presented by the Los Angeles Fire Department, the size of the fire command center in new buildings will be increased.
  • F87 07/08 - Radio operability is a major concern for fire departments across the United States. New buildings will be required to provide an approved system inside the building to ensure radio coverage in the building. This unit will be coordinated with the local fire department. Outside of the code requirement, these systems will also require a close working relationship between fire prevention staff and the first responders.
  • F132 07/08 - Did you realize that areas in schools or similar buildings that were used for "participant sports" were allowed to omit sprinkler protection from that space? Some of these areas would then be utilized for craft shows on the weekend and a perceived change of use. The approved code change will delete the exception for the participant areas and sprinklers would be required.
  • E19 07/08 - The E2 disaster in Chicago (see link below) highlights that disasters can happen in sprinkled and unsprinklered buildings. The code requirements for reduction in stairway egress comments was deleted and the code requires the same factors for buildings if they are provided with automatic sprinklers or not.
  • RB64 07/08 - The residential sprinkler vote was one of the largest votes in ICC history. The new requirement will take affect after January 1, 2011 and an approved sprinkler system shall be provided in all one- and two-family dwellings built under the International Residential Code.
  • RB71 07/08 - Fire Departments have been responding to incidents which involve carbon monoxide for years. The new code will require carbon monoxide detectors to be installed in all new homes.
  • RB 68 07/08 - In light of many of the tragedies with firefighter fatalities and lightweight wood truss construction, a code change was submitted for the protection of lightweight wood trusses by utilizing an approved sprinkler system or a thermal barrier by dry-wall. This code change was narrowly lost and will be reworked and submitted in the future.

The protection of lightweight wood trusses could have been a key code change in protecting the lives of future firefighters. There is a lot of work to get many of these code changes implemented and we must continue to work on those that did not pass.

The code development process is important and we must work with model code organizations, such as the ICC and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), to provide codes which not only protect the occupants, but protect the firefighters who are expected to respond to incidents in the buildings. Involvement in the code process is not limited to the ICC. There are many great code groups which require firefighter involvement. These include the NFPA, the Underwriters Laboratory and your local state codes. Organizations such as NFPA are working to aid governmental members to certain committees.

The fire service has shown tremendous support of these organizations and it is evident that we are making an impact on the floor of the ICC. Throughout the code development process they were prepared, networking, and building relationships that will help save future lives and influence future code changes.

You can help by looking at your department's budget and making sure that we can send firefighters, fire marshals or fire chiefs to code development meetings. Make sure you watch at your local and state level. Get involved to make sure these changes aren't amended out of the local or state codes. In addition, make sure that local code officials realize how important it is to adopt the 2009 code in a timely fashion. Involvement in the process can lead to saving future lives by reducing fires and saving property.

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MICHAEL O'BRIAN, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a fire marshal for the Brighton Area Fire Authority in Michigan. He is the president of Code Savvy Consultants and is the creator of the dynamic webpage www.inspector911.com that is designed to assist all types of inspectors by providing resources, information, checklists and up-to-date news. To read Michael's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Michael by e-mail at mobrian@inspector911.com..

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