Don't Amend Yourself out of the Fire Prevention Business

May 28, 2008
As we begin to consider adoption of the next edition of our nationally recognized codes and standards, we must look closely at what we are trying to achieve when we adopt them and propose our local amendments.

Most fire departments adopt nationally recognized codes and standards then make local amendments to them. Usually the amendments are stricter than the nationally recognized codes and standards. As fire protection professionals we must be cautious not to amend ourselves out of the fire prevention business. Local fire code requirements can be necessary to address the community's fire problem. However, we must ensure we are not being over zealous in our fire code development. This can lead to significant cost and community development implications if we do not carefully and methodically develop our fire code amendments.

As we begin to consider adoption of the next edition of our nationally recognized codes and standards, we must look closely at what we are trying to achieve when we adopt them and propose our local amendments. There are fundamental questions that must be answered before you put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. Many fire and building departments overlook these questions and make local amendments because "that is what we want in our jurisdiction"

What is the mission of your organization and what role does fire prevention play in that mission? Do the nationally recognized codes allow your organization to meet the mission?
The duties of the fire prevention bureau must not be structured to function independently within the fire department but to function with the other divisions of the organization. Just like the private sector, each division of the organization must share in the overall mission. It is essential that the fire prevention services are part of the organization's overall focus.

If the mission of the fire department is to prevent loss of life and reduce property damage from the effects of fire, then the adopted codes must assist the fire department in achieving this mission. Based on fire loss history, local amendments may be warranted. It is critical to correlate fire and life loss to fire code changes. A multi-family sprinkler ordinance may be justified if your community contains a large multifamily housing stock and has or is experiencing a significant loss of life and property loss from fire. However, make sure you don't make knee-jerk decisions without public input and support.

What is the level of fire protection and fire prevention services your organization has been directed to provide? Is the direction provided and supported by the elected body overseeing your organization?
The level of fire department service is typically determined by the policy makers. Fire departments may not have the staffing levels to provide a politically desired level of fire suppression or fire prevention services. Local amendments for a zero square footage sprinkler ordinance may achieve the desired results of fire protection desired by the elected body. In some areas of the country, volunteer fire departments have embraced large commercial and residential developments on the premise of installing automatic sprinklers when elected officials have no desire to increase fire suppression staffing to address the increase in development. The local sprinkler amendment assists in providing the desired level of fire protection to the community. The built-in fire protection features provide a level of protection until a limited staffed suppression crew can arrive.

Are the proposed amendments linked directly to a particular desired outcome of your fire prevention program?
Before a fire department proposes code amendments, it is imperative they consider the desired outcome of the department's fire prevention program. For example, does the loss history indicate a significant number of fires in homes occupied by the senior population? Are senior victims perishing in residential occupancy fires that have no smoke detectors installed or working?

If the outcome of the fire prevention program is to have zero fire deaths in a community or to significantly reduce the number of fire deaths, a combination of fire code amendments and an aggressive fire and life safety education program will begin to move the fire department closer to achieving that fire prevention program outcome. A local amendment to require sprinkler protection in new senior housing will have an additional positive impact for years to come.

If asked, can your organization provide data or concrete examples of why each fire code amendment is necessary? Are you prepared to justify each amendment?
These are some of the most important questions to address when amending your local fire code. We must be able to justify each amendment either with quantitative fire loss data or identified perceived risks to the community. Far too often fire departments amend nationally recognized codes without good justification. This can cause amendments to be made because that is what the authority having jurisdiction needs or "wants."

On the other side of the coin, this country has continuously justified the need for residential sprinklers to save lives in occupancies with the greatest fire death rate. Reasonably then this local amendment is justifiable and can be shown as needed with plenty of quantifiable data but only a few departments embrace this because of political ramifications and resistance. Many local amendments are made for sprinkler protection in commercial properties but it isn't always supported by the local data for mitigating loss of life and property. As a result, this only emphasizes the need for being aware of your political landscape and community desires before launching into pen and paper exercises.

As we move toward another edition of the nationally recognized model codes, consider answering each of the questions identified above. Local amendments, even if only on rare occasion, can be necessary to address a community's fire problem. When crafting amendments you can avoid unnecessary scrutiny of your local fire code by carefully justifying each amendment. Too many unjustified amendments causes unneeded delays to your fire prevention program goals and can lead to amending you right out of the fire prevention business!

BRETT LACEY, a 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 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: [email protected].

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