Code enforcement has become extremely technical and requires code officials to have many skills. These skills include the understanding of codes and standards, communication, interpersonal, time management, and the knowledge of the general intent of codes. Although there is a range of requirements for every type of system, component, design, or building, the basics for the enforcement will remain constant. As code officials develop in their profession, they begin to understand the intent of the adopted code or standard which is based on the principles of life safety.
This article is not intended to replace sound code enforcement. Fire marshals, fire inspectors, plan reviewers, and building owners should study, learn, and understand the adopted fire code. In many cases as fire inspectors begin in the profession, they can follow some basic principles in fire prevention.
When students in a Fire Inspector I course are asked "why is there a need for fire inspections" there are many answers. The first answer is typically life safety. Students will follow up with answers about requirements of the code, fire prevention, education, or even to reduce the number of fires. The answer has expanded over the years and may include firefighter safety or an improved awareness toward fire safety. Looking toward the first answer, the model fire and building codes are dominated by code requirements that relate to "life safety."
Initial Inspection Efforts
The initial concept of a fire prevention bureau is to prevent fire. Inspection efforts can be based on fire prevention (limiting the fire) and proper construction of a building or sound practices once a fire occurs. Fire prevention, in its basic concepts, is to limit fires from starting. This can be accomplished by separating combustible materials from ignition sources or limiting open flame devices. Many of our fire fighters are taught this basic concept when conducting a home fire survey. Clothes, storage, and other materials should not be stored adjacent to a heat producing appliance such as a water heater or furnace. The same theory is present in commercial buildings. Under fire prevention is the ability to limit unsafe activities such as open flames, cooking, industrial process, or even incompatible material use and storage.
As the inspection continues, the inspector should be evaluating the building based on its sustainability during a fire event. Ask yourself "If a fire occurs, will the system (building) limit the spread of fire and will people get out of the building?" Let's look at this as a matter of "life safety." Life safety can be defined as the means of egress and its protection. Means of egress is any space in the building up to the "public right of way" (outside of the building). The following questions can be asked when evaluating the components of an egress system:
- Are exit signs visible?
- Do doors swing out or with the flow of egress?
- Are doors readily operable?
- Do lighting systems operate under loss of power?
- Are exit stairwells in working order and do they direct people out of the structure?
- Is there proper capacity of exits based on the occupant load?
In order to begin the process of evacuation, the occupants must be notified that a fire exists. This is typically accomplished by notification devices (horns, strobes, or speakers) connected to a fire alarm system. Fire alarm requirements are based on the adopted building, life safety, or fire code. In a residential setting, notification is provided through smoke alarms. The alarm system must be properly maintained by the business owner who typically contracts with an approved alarm company to test and maintain the system.
Evacuation can be accomplished by a trained staff that alerts occupants in the event of a fire. In addition to a fire alarm system, the staff of a building must be trained in evacuation procedures and this is usually tested by a "fire drill." Staff must also be trained in fire prevention and general safety. Training requirements and frequency of the training is outlined in the adopted fire code.