Fire Prevention and Code Enforcement - Part I

Fire prevention and code enforcement activities are historically documented throughout the world as far back as early as the first century. Community leaders of those times recognized specific problems related to fire and implemented strategies to reduce or lessen the impact of fire incidents. Early fire departments or some derivative thereof were often charged with the responsibility of enforcing the law of the land to protect properties and even themselves from the ravages of fire. Significant events occurring as early as 26 A.D. in Rome included administering corporal punishment for violators of established fire codes. This could be the earliest known type of actual enforcement measure with some type of penalty for non-compliance attached.

Clearly, the use of fire was an absolute necessity for cooking and heating in those primitive days, however, by acts of carelessness or accident, fire was a force that had to be reckoned with. During the ninth century (872 A.D.) in England, a system was established for a bell to be rung as a signal for all fires to be extinguished at a designated time of the evening. This fire code requirement had some impact on lessening fire events occurring during the nighttime hours by acts of carelessness or accident. More than 300 years later in London, (1189) some of the earliest known building codes was established. A declaration requiring houses be erected of nothing but stone indicates that some consideration was given to use of non-combustible or fire resistant materials. The following year in Oxford (1190) firewalls were required to be built between every six houses. Thus, the first known requirements for fire separation.

These measures influenced early societies and their ability to protect themselves and their property from the effects of unwanted fires. The focus of fire protection requirements at this point seems to have been primarily protecting adjoining structures from fire. As everything in the world around us evolves, so did fire codes. During the 1400's in Scotland, regulations were implemented that prohibited storage of hay, straw, brooms and similar items near fires. In 1643 laws were enacted that required candles to be placed in water base holders. These decrees were the beginning of fire codes and ordinances in effect today regarding combustible storage and open flame devices.

The Great Fire of London in 1666 burned for four days. Over 80% of the City was destroyed during this event. Subsequent to that fire, additional fire code requirements were implemented that would provide more fire protection for communities throughout the country. There is documented evidence that an established water supply was required on the roof of a theater in London in 1794 and more than one staircase was required in tall buildings around 1884. Thus addressing the concerns of fire protection water supply and means of egress. Once again, the same fire code issues we face in modern times were of great concern then.

Fire protection measures in America became evident not long after settlers arrived to this land. In 1631 in Massachusetts, specific regulations for chimneys were imposed regarding construction and cleaning. Later in 1785, monetary fines were imposed for non-compliance of chimney requirements in Pennsylvania. These fines are reported to have been 15 schillings. This equates to approximately $30.00 in today's values. This would have constituted a substantial fine during that time period. The late 1800's and early 1900's brought about fire code requirements around the country relating to means of egress and exiting. In 1860, New York City required fire escapes for structures housing more than eight families. In 1906, Tulsa, Oklahoma required fire escapes for all buildings more than three stories tall.

The implementation of fire codes throughout history has been a direct result of some type of fire problem. Repeated types of fire events or catastrophic and tragic events propelled action by authorities to avoid life and property losses in the future. Some of the more widely know fires in American history are evident of that fact. Those fire incidents in specific types of occupancies all gave birth to specific requirements by occupancy type in future fire codes.

Fire incidents in assembly occupancies like the Brooklyn Theater, December 5, 1876 in New York claimed 295 lives; the Iroquois Theater, December 30, 1903 in Chicago, Illinois claimed 603 lives; the Rhythm Club, 1940 in Natchez, Mississippi took the lives of 207 people; the Cocoanut Grove Night Club, Boston, Massachusetts on November 28, 1942 claimed 492 lives; and finally the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire on May 28, 1977 took 164 lives; are all primary examples of assembly occupancies where the conditions and circumstances of the fire resulted in tragic life loss because of similar conditions. Those circumstances included foremost that these were high occupant load places of business and all had issues of excessive combustible decorations, improperly marked exits, no availability of fire extinguishers, obstructed egress doors or insufficient numbers of egress doors that attributed to the high life loss. As a result of these fires, specific codes were adopted and continue to be refined to address these most critical of life safety issues.

Other occupancy types throughout history have suffered the serious effects of fire, and fire codes were developed to address specific issues that were identified as contributing to the severity of those losses. Historical fire incidents in industrial occupancies include the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911 that claimed 146 lives and the Monsanto Chemical Company fire in Texas City, Texas on April 16, 1947. The Monsanto fire began in a ship carrying hazardous materials, which led to a deadly explosion that took the lives of the majority of the firefighters on the scene and the ships crew. These two fires brought to light the fact that firefighters needed on-going training in all types of fire situations and even further, that fire code ordinances and requirements not only protected the general public and their property, but firefighters as well.

Educational occupancies have seen significant fires throughout this country's history that dramatically affected the development of fire codes as well. In 1908, in Collinwood, Ohio, at the Lake View School, 175 people were killed. On December 24, 1924 at Babbs Switch, Oklahoma, 36 were killed. A fire at Our Lady of Angels School in 1958 claimed 95 lives. Factors contributing to catastrophic life loss in these fires are now rigidly addressed by fire codes today. Open stairwells in a structure was a primary cause of fire fatalities at the Lake View School, while use of open flame devices and obstructed exits in Babbs Switch was the compelling factor.

Finally, another example of a specific type of occupancy where disastrous life loss contributed to the development of fire codes was in hotels and motels. On December 7, 1946, a fire at the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia claimed 119 lives and the prominent factor contributing to those fatalities was the ease of smoke and fire travel through open stairwells. Most recently, the MGM Grand fire in Las Vegas, Nevada on November 21, 1980 claimed the lives of 87 people. The absence of fire protection systems and smoke detection was a major contributor to life loss in this incident.

All through history, documentation clearly defines how catastrophic fire incidents, whether measured in terms of life loss or property loss, brought about change in fire codes and ordinances. To coin a phrase "necessity is the mother of invention" is as applicable in the realm of fire code development as any other scenario one could describe.

The fire service of today is a direct result of experience of those who blazed a trail before us. The lessons they learned in not only tactical considerations in firefighting, but in identifying critical fire hazards and developing means to protect from those hazards is the groundwork of which the fire service operates on today. The adoption process of fire codes has many influencing factors and will be discussed in detail. Part 2 of this series will continue with an overview of how fire codes were developed and the organizations responsible.


Fire Prevention and Code Enforcement - Part V
Fire Prevention and Code Enforcement - Part IV
Fire Prevention and Code Enforcement - Part III
Fire Prevention and Code Enforcement - Part II