Plan Reviews, are They Necessary and a Function of our Service?

Lately it seems one of the new municipal executive management paradigms is to remove the construction document review responsibilities from the local fire department and shift them all to the community development department or building divisions. Many fire chiefs are wrestling with the notion of "Are plan reviews necessary and are they even a function of our service?

In many fire departments we find there are still those departments who focus solely only on the BRTs (Big Red Trucks). Our view point is the construction document review process is a critical component of the service provided by fire departments and is important not only for the safety of the occupants, but for fire fighter safety and their ability to perform emergency operations at the building. The outcome of the plan review process will impact the building's construction and built-in fire protection features for the life of the building.

Granted, there are a number of arguments of why a fire department should not provide this service. Probably the most common arguments include budget constraints, political pressure and lack of technical training or staff to perform the service adequately.

Fire prevention bureaus are staffed in many different ways and with different numbers of staff. Sometimes the responsibility of the various functions falls to one person. Other times, there may be several people to split the duties. Occasionally a larger department has the capacity to perform all of the traditional functions in addition to a professionally trained plan review or engineering staff. Regardless of the size of department, the function of plans review should be performed to whatever degree is possible. Please refer to Establishing Fire Prevention Bureaus Part I and Part II.

When we discuss the degree of fire department involvement, it relates to the types of plans and the amount of detailed review performed in that function. Plan review is simply doing an evaluation of design plans prior to actual construction or function. Plans can be related to construction or they may be related to process operations of manufacturing or product assembly. It may also be a component of hazard, operational or revocable permit issuance. The following only briefly highlights some fire department concerns identified in the construction document review process.

Architectural Drawings

  • Egress and ingress for suppression
  • Occupancy classification
  • Hazardous storage rooms
  • Hazardous operations

Structural Drawings

  • Construction features, such as:
    • Firewalls
    • Parapets
    • Openings in walls
    • Roof construction and access

Mechanical Drawings

  • Ductwork
  • Plumbing
  • Mechanical and plumbing chases

Electrical Drawings

  • Electrical fire pump
  • Emergency, exit, and egress lighting
  • Transformer vaults

Site, Landscaping, Civil, and Utility Drawings

  • Civil details such as water retention, storm water management, and road construction
  • Topography and building's shape and location
    • Fire department concerns:
      • Access
      • Water supply and hydrant locations
      • Vegetation management and landscape features

Fire Protection Drawings

  • Built-in fire protection systems:
    • Automatic sprinklers
    • Standpipes
    • Detection and alarm

The extent of fire department involvement in the plan review process can be restricted to the training and expertise of the reviewer. Either of the two model fire codes identifies specific code requirements to be met in given jurisdictions. These requirements relate to general fire precautions, fire vehicle access, water supply, fire detection and suppression requirements and various types of operational and functional requirements for various hazards. To a large extent, anyone with basic knowledge of fire service operational needs can do a good base level review. Obviously, the more technically trained a person is the more in-depth the plan review process can become. It is better to provide comprehensive and technical reviews. However, there are some easily identifiable basic fire department issues.

An example could be fire department vehicle access. There are minimum widths (typically 20 feet) that must be maintained for apparatus access to buildings. There will also be vertical height clearances (such as 13-foot six inches), which must be provided to allow the passage of aerial trucks or other large heavy equipment. Knowing these two requirements enables a novice inspector to evaluate a site plan for a given development or construction site to see if in fact there is proper width and height provided. Sometimes the height requirement is not as easily determined since this requires more than just a site plan. It likely will require an elevation plan or at least an elevation detail identifying examples of typical vertical clearance between the roadway and a structure, overhead sign, tree, etc.

A more technical review would also include the turning radius of your specific fire apparatus. It doesn't help much if you have the minimum 20 foot clear width in the roadway, but then find you cannot make the turn that is designed in that same roadway. Just because a Volkswagen Beetle can make the turn, doesn't mean your largest engine or aerial can. Another aspect may be the load carrying capacity of the road base. Again, fire apparatus can be very heavy in comparison to a compact car. You want to make sure during a call your apparatus does not sink into the road, particularly in the summer when asphalt is softest. This may require verification by a civil engineer that the soils and finished base can support your expected load.

Keep in mind, your plan reviewer or examiner does not necessarily need to be the one to do the actual technical review. As in the example above, the verification that a certified or registered design professional has done his or her work may be enough to ensure compliance. We would offer though that in larger communities, where work loads are typically more intense and volume of work is sometimes overwhelming, quality of designs by professionals is sometimes less accurate or specific than would be desired. For that reason, you will typically see more technically competent review staff such as engineers or technologists who can birddog the issues more aggressively.

Whatever the level of expertise of your staff and whatever their comfort level is, if they are certified in fire code enforcement, they should be capable of doing at least a minimal amount of plan review or code compliance on paper. The NFPA professional qualification standard for fire inspector and plans examiner (NFPA 1031) spells out specific responsibilities based on the level of certification and training. However, for departments who may be small or not yet recognizing that standard, minimal involvement will greatly enhance your code enforcement capabilities.

The fact remains becoming as involved as possible in the front end of a project such as in the design stage will prevent problems with the design in the construction and acceptance stage. (see Improving Your Construction Document Review Process.) It is pretty easy to correct deficiencies or errors on paper, but it can become nearly impossible if not cost prohibitive to do it after the fact. Designers and contractors are typically not trying to get away with violations. Generally, they are simply not familiar with fire code requirements or elements of your local amendments that impact their design. Taking the lead and heading off issues early in the design phase begins the fire prevention coalition building with the owner of the building. Keep in mind the construction document review process may be the first experience the owner has with the fire department. We want to start with a positive relationship with the owner. Remember the owner will be in the community long after the developer picks up his tools and check as he/she leaves.

We must remember any time we as fire code enforcers open our mouth; we cost people time and money. We need to be cognizant of these at all times and do all we can to abate violations and help designers with the inception of their projects. Remember too a healthy local economy generally helps in funding of fire protection and life safety services. Do all you can to initiate a proactive approach by being as involved as possible in the design process. The more insight and input you can have before big money is spent, the more effective your efforts will be. Your chief will hear about how good your division is too. Whenever you make your boss look good, your division looks good!

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BRETT LACEY, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Marshal for the Colorado Springs, CO, Fire Department and a professional engineer. He has over 27 years in the fire service and has served on various technical committees including NFPA 1031, IFSTA committee for Inspection practices, and Fire Detection and Suppression Systems and the Colorado Fire Marshal's Association Code Committee. PAUL VALENTINE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Marshal for the Mount Prospect, IL, Fire Department and formerly served as their fire protection engineer. He has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire Protection and Safety Engineering Technology from Oklahoma State University and a Master of Science Degree in Management and Organizational Behavior from Benedictine University and is a graduate from the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Brett and Paul co-authored Fire Prevention Applications, published by Fire Protection Publications. They also presented a webcast titled Fire Prevention Applications on Firehouse TrainingLIVE. To read their complete biographies and view their archived articles, click here. You can reach Paul by e-mail at: paulvalentine@wowway.com.

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