Battling Over The Code Process

When it comes to saving lives and property on a grand scale, nothing is more important than the strict enforcement of strong building, fire and life safety codes. Every hour of every day, fire departments respond to alarms that turn out to be routine because codes prevented the loss of life before the first-due engine arrived on the scene. And, when a disaster does occur, the post-fire investigation often reveals weak codes, with loopholes and grandfather clauses, or codes that were poorly enforced.

That's why the writing and implementation of model codes is of vital concern to the fire service and why so much is at stake in the on-going effort to create one uniform code for the entire nation. As it stands today, four different organizations are involved in writing model codes, but the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is the only one in which fire officials play a prominent role in drafting the provisions. The others are dominated by building officials, even though 70 percent of the typical building code deals with fire and life safety issues.

In an effort to bridge that gap, the NFPA entered into an agreement with the International Code Council (ICC) to develop an international fire code. But it has turned out to be a rocky road because of philosophical differences over the way in which codes are formulated and who can or cannot vote on the proposed regulations.

The NFPA takes a "consensus" approach, in which a wide range of experts - including fire officers - have a voice and a vote on code provisions. In contrast, the ICC members incorporate fire and life safety measures into their overall building codes, but only code enforcers (mostly building officials) have a vote in the process. With a few exceptions, fire chiefs are relegated to a maintenance role in carrying out the provisions of a building code in which they had very little influence while it was being written.

This was unacceptable to the NFPA, which broke off talks with the ICC. In a letter of explanation, NFPA President George D. Miller wrote: "We welcomed the opportunity to create one model fire code, which would have provided uniform fire safety in all states and jurisdictions, and we knew that blending our code processes would be enormously challenging. In the end, the gulf was so wide and so deep that we could not bridge it."

Each organization is going ahead with their own effort to write a comprehensive code, though the door has been left open to resume talks if both sides are willing. The International Association of Fire Chiefs has appointed a task force to negotiate with both groups, to determine which model code they may or may not endorse. The National Association of State Fire Marshals is developing administrative language for national consensus-based fire safety codes and standards.

No one doubts the expertise or good intentions of building officials. However, my own experience in dealing with them over a period of 40 years has not always been encouraging. As a reporter covering fire disasters, I have encountered building officials who made it clear that they were not interested in the opinions of firefighters when it came to revising codes. In one memorable incident, a building inspector on a "blue ribbon" panel investigating one of the Las Vegas hotel fires insisted that sprinklers would not have saved any lives and were not necessary in high-rise buildings! Fortunately, his views were not heeded and Nevada adopted a retroactive code requiring sprinklers in new and existing high-rise hotels.

Too often, a fire department is stuck with a building code in which they have had little or no input. Russell Sanders, retired chief of the Louisville, KY, Fire Department and the NFPA central region manager, declares: "We strongly feel that the fire service must be treated as first-class citizens, with a loud and clear voice in the formulation of codes, including authority over both new and existing buildings when it comes to fire and life safety." He points out that building officials have dominated the writing and enforcement of codes, and sometimes ignored the recommendations of fire chiefs, which is one reason so many high-rise buildings still don't have sprinklers.

At present, only nine states have adopted NFPA 1 as their model fire code. Others use codes written by three ICC members - the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI), the Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA) and the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO). The most used model is the ICBO's Uniform Fire Code, which has been adopted by 16 states.

It's up to states and cities to implement codes as they see fit to meet local situations, but the model codes are a powerful force in fire prevention and life safety. Frank Brannigan has pointed out many times that buildings are the enemies of firefighters. Therefore, it seems logical that experienced fire chiefs - who have taken an oath to protect lives and property and are responsible for sending their firefighters into burning buildings - should have something to say about any regulation that deals with fire and life safety, even when it is a part of the building code.

There is no way of knowing how many lives have been saved by the strict enforcement of tough building, fire and life safety codes. But we do know that many lives have been lost because of weak codes that ignored the recommendations of fire experts.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a political analyst with ABC News in Washington and served many years as a volunteer firefighter.