BY BEN COFFMAN
|• The Iroquois Theatre: Fire “claimed the lives of 602 people, two-thirds of them women and children, on the afternoon of December 30, 1903.”1 Overcrowding, locked exits, inward-opening exit doors, and unfinished fire protection features all contributed to the tragedy.|
|• The Cocoanut Grove Nightclub: On the night of November 28, 1942, 492 persons lost their lives after fire swept through flammable decorations and trapped overcrowded occupants behind inadequate, locked or blocked exits.2|
|• The Beverly Hills Supper Club: Locked or blocked exits; incompatible wiring; and an overcrowded, maze-like interior led to the deaths of 164 persons on the evening of May 28, 1977.3|
|• The Happy Land Social Club: An arson fire set in a jealous rage killed 87 club goers on the night of March 25, 1990. Barred windows, overcrowding, and a single exit prevented patrons from escaping the deadly fire.4|
|• The E2 Club: Panicked club goers, fleeing pepper spray used to break up a fight, stampeded down a steep, narrow stairwell, crushing 21 people to death in the rush. Locked, blocked, and inadequate exits were critical factors in the deaths.5|
|• The Station Nightclub: Pyrotechnics from a band performance ignited flammable decorations at an overcrowded concert, causing a stampede toward an inadequate main exit, resulting in the deaths of 100 persons on February 20, 2003.6|
The above incidents span more than 100 years, yet the central theme of these needless deaths remains the same: inadequate exits. Whether exits are locked, blocked, or not present in sufficient number for the building, inadequate exits have probably contributed to more nonresidential fire deaths than any other single factor. Yet, large portions of every major model code address exits and their maintenance. If exits are such an important part of the model building and fire codes, why do we continue to have fatalities behind inadequate exits? The answer is a lack of code enforcement. Code enforcement converts a building or fire code from just another government regulation into a force for life safety. Without trained and knowledgeable personnel out in the field performing inspections, issuing permits, and generally improving the fire safety in their communities, these tragedies will continue to happen.
INTRODUCTION TO CODE ENFORCEMENT
America leads the industrial world in fire-related deaths. “The annual losses from floods, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, and other natural disasters combined in the United States average just a fraction of the losses from fire.”7 An efficient and effective fire prevention program that uses trained and knowledgeable persons to inspect properties for compliance with fire codes and ordinances could prevent many of these fires.
Code enforcement is a critical element in the success of fire prevention programs. Almost every aspect of a thorough fire prevention program is affected by code enforcement in some way. It plays a major role in fire and life safety inspections, plans review, hazardous materials and environmental investigations, and the issuance of fire prevention code permits. Code enforcement plays an important but more limited role in fire investigations, public education programs, and fire research and analysis.
Code enforcement, as well as fire prevention in general, comes in many forms. Many programs use code enforcement as a legal tool to ensure compliance with fire codes or ordinances. Other programs may use code enforcement as more of a guideline, particularly in the absence of legal enforcement authority. Some programs use dedicated inspectors while others use suppression units to perform inspections. Some programs may consist of a small office; others may have grown into divisions. The structure of the fire prevention organization is not important; what is important is that the program covers the major functions of fire prevention.
What Is It?
Code enforcement is the process of ensuring compliance with all codes, ordinances, laws, and other regulations. Although this definition of code enforcement is accurate, in reality code enforcement is any action taken to ensure citizens comply with fire codes. Code enforcement can mean anything from fire inspections to speaking to a citizens’ group about burning garden debris. Each of these actions helps to educate citizens about how to comply with the code, and compliance with the code, after all, is what code enforcement is all about.
Why Is It Needed?
Code enforcement is the basis for fire prevention inspections, and “the inspection process is the very backbone of the fire prevention program”.8 A fire prevention program is the most effective method of keeping the community safe from fires. Although firefighters and their fire engines can do amazing work to put out fires, the damage to the community begins before they even get the call. Fires devastate communities, costing billions of dollars, destroying vital infrastructure, and taking thousands of lives. Despite the nationwide fear of terrorism, fire is the greatest threat a community faces.
In 1978, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), in a joint effort with the Urban Institute, the U.S. Fire Administration, and the National Science Foundation, released the results of the study “Fire Code Inspections and Fire Prevention: What Methods Lead To Success?”9 The study was an attempt to determine if fire inspections could lower the number of fires and, correspondingly, the lives and dollars lost. The findings of this study show the following remarkable benefits of code enforcement:
- The study used data from 17 cities and one metropolitan county and examined fires for which the dollar loss exceeded $5,000.
- Data showed that four to eight percent of fires were caused by hazards that could be seen and corrected by the direct actions of fire inspectors.
- Forty to 60 percent of fires were caused by carelessness, foolish actions, or mechanical failures (often related to lack of maintenance) and were not preventable through the direct actions of fire inspectors.
- The remaining 32 to 66 percent of fires resulted from natural causes or incendiary actions or were labeled suspicious. These fires were not considered preventable.
- Jurisdictions conducting inspections in almost all public structures had much lower fire losses than those that did not; the fire rate in jurisdictions without code enforcement was more than twice as high as those with code enforcement.
- Of the jurisdictions with inspection programs, those that used suppression companies for a majority of inspections had lower fire rates than those using only dedicated fire inspectors.
- The report speculated that the lower fire rates probably occurred because suppression companies were inspecting more properties since they were greater in number than dedicated fire prevention inspectors.
- The study found that the number of fires in the carelessness/foolish action/mechanical failure category dropped significantly, even fires that were not directly preventable by fire inspectors.
- The report reasoned that the drop in the number of these fires could be related to an overall attitude of fire safety in the community because of the visibility of the fire prevention program through annual inspections.
This study shows the positive benefits of a strong code enforcement program. Fire rates drop significantly when trained inspectors make annual inspections of public buildings. And the fire rates drop not only from direct code enforcement but also from an overall fire safe attitude, making the entire community safer.
Who Performs It?
There are as many staffing models for accomplishing code enforcement as there are fire departments that employ code enforcement. It seems no two code enforcement programs are alike. There are, however, some commonalities among code enforcement staffing models:
- Personnel should be trained to the level of enforcement they will perform.
- Personnel should be knowledgeable about the structures and processes they will be inspecting.
- Personnel should be familiar with the legal authority and responsibilities of fire code enforcement.
Staffing the code enforcement functions of a fire prevention program may require a complex system of fire prevention personnel, civilians, and field personnel. Some of the more common staffing models include the following:
- Full-time uniformed personnel dedicated to code enforcement functions within the fire prevention organization.
- Full-time civilians, properly trained and qualified, who fulfill the code enforcement functions.
- Part-time firefighters from outside the department or firefighters from within the department working on overtime to perform code enforcement.
- A small number of uniformed fire inspectors following up on inspections by field suppression units.
The most effective code enforcement programs use a combination of all these staffing models. Tight budgets often reduce the number of uniformed fire inspectors, requiring alternative staffing to accomplish fire prevention objectives. Hiring civilians to witness fire detection and protection systems tests may be a good way to free uniformed inspectors for more technically challenging functions. Using part-time inspectors or field suppression companies to perform initial inspections on all public occupancies within the jurisdiction further frees uniformed inspectors for technical assignments, such as complex inspections or handling citizen complaints. These alternate staffing models generally require that the uniformed inspectors follow up on any major or uncorrected violations reported during systems tests or public occupancy inspections.
How Is It Performed?
Code enforcement is always based on an established fire prevention or life safety code. These codes may be written by individual jurisdictions but are more commonly adopted from model codes. Model codes are defined as “a code generally developed through the consensus process through the use of technical committees developed by an organization for adoption by governments.” (8) Simply put, model codes are written by technical code committees expressly for adoption by governments. Once these model codes are adopted in a jurisdiction, an agency must be assigned the authority to enforce the adopted code. In the area of fire prevention or life safety codes, this authority usually falls to the fire prevention arm of the jurisdiction’s fire department.
Once assigned the authority to enforce the code, the fire prevention program manager must determine the best method of enforcement. Program managers have several choices for implementing enforcement based on the “3 Es” of fire prevention10:
- education, and
- enforcement (inspections).
Engineering most often involves using specially trained professional engineers to review construction plans. Known as plans review, the process includes reviewing a construction or development plan for fire and life safety issues.
11 The review of plans for construction gives the progressive fire prevention program an opportunity to lobby for fire and life safety features, particularly sprinkler systems. By studying the plans and lobbying for the safest construction possible, plans review personnel can prevent fires from happening and lessen the life threats when they do occur. This type of code enforcement focuses special emphasis on fire detection and protection systems, means of egress, fire department features (sprinkler connections, and so on), and hazardous materials storage issues.
Another form of engineering is code review, which involves reviewing the code for needed changes or updates. A progressive fire prevention program will often attempt to place qualified personnel on governmental or model code committees in an attempt to effect changes in the text of the code. These persons can use their votes and lobbying power to support code changes that improve fire and life safety or to defeat measures that may lessen safety. This is an important element of a thorough fire prevention program and is often overlooked by fire departments.
Education can play a key role in code enforcement. We all know about the public education programs in the fire service such as Learn Not to Burn® and Fire Prevention Week.12 Code enforcement education is somewhat different. This type of education involves educating construction and development professionals on fire and life safety codes, to minimize violations and maximize safety.
Some departments publish special brochures or booklets on planning construction projects for compliance with the fire code. The Staunton (VA) Fire Prevention Office issues brochures to developers with instructions on the proper marking of fire lanes, an issue that had seen much confusion in the past.13 The Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue Department issues a “Code Reference Package for Architects, Engineers, Designers, and Installers”14 (see “Fairfax County’s Code Reference Package”). The package provides information on applying for permits, requesting inspections and system tests, and where to look in the applicable codes for information. These two progressive fire prevention programs are enforcing codes while construction is still being planned, maximizing the effectiveness of fire prevention as a tool.
In addition to assisting planners and developers, code enforcement can benefit business owners and entrepreneurs. Steven Sites, fire prevention official, states, “Most new, and sometimes established, business owners don’t have a firm understanding of fire and life safety. First-time fire prevention inspections are best received from the owner’s perspective if approached from an educational objective. A business owner who buys into fire and life safety has been adequately educated.”15 Educating the owner to the requirements as well as the spirit and intent of the code can attain positive benefits for fire and life safety.
In fire prevention, the term “enforcement” is most often associated with trained and knowledgeable inspectors performing walk-throughs of entire facilities, looking for any hazards or violations of applicable codes. These inspections could be called the “bread and butter” of fire prevention, as they are the foundation of most fire prevention programs. Inspections are generally performed under one of two models: (8)
- Permit-Based Inspections. All model codes contain a permit system in which individuals must obtain permits when performing certain dangerous activities or processes. Most of the model codes allow for an inspection prior to issuing a permit. The permit-based inspection process is “the simplest to get started and the easiest to defend as technically valid.”
- Inspection Model. When using the inspection model, the program manager identifies which type of occupancies to inspect and how often. These decisions are generally based on the level of hazard presented by occupancy types or on data of previous fire rates in the jurisdiction.
Whichever model is chosen, inspectors must physically go to the location and inspect the property. This usually means going to the identified facility; meeting with property management officials; and then performing a walk-through of the entire structure, looking for any hazards or violations. Some fire prevention programs use a checklist when performing inspections; others rely on the inspector’s knowledge of the code to identify hazards. There is debate as to whether checklists indirectly limit the inspector’s attention to only items on the checklist; so many departments are now using a broad, generalized checklist to encourage inspectors to be open to any hazards while still ensuring a minimum level of coverage.
When Is It Needed?
The determination of when to inspect a property can carry a great deal of legal responsibility. There are several models used to determine inspection schedules.
Permit-Based. These inspections are generally made prior to issuing or updating a fire prevention permit or as a regular follow-up to ensure compliance with the conditions of the permit. Since most model codes include sections on issuing permits for a wide range of activities, using the permit-based model allows personnel to inspect most of the potentially hazardous properties in a jurisdiction.
Routine. Routine inspections of specific properties should be made in accordance with a written policy outlining the scheduling of inspections for various occupancies. The frequency or priority of inspections should be based on the hazards presented by certain occupancies, such as public assembly venues or hazardous materials manufacturing facilities. Once the schedule is determined, it should not be deviated from except for good reason, such as a special hazard inspection. Even then, the routinely scheduled inspection should still be carried out, maintaining continuity in the inspection schedule.
Complaint-Based. These inspections are a response to complaints received from citizens, government officials, fire department personnel, or even fire prevention personnel. For example, an inspector receives a telephone call reporting a possible violation of a fire or life safety code, such as a locked exit in a business. The inspector then proceeds to the location and attempts to verify the violation reported in the complaint. These inspections may be problematic, as many callers wish to remain anonymous and inspectors may find some complaints are filed as retribution for alleged wrongdoing by the property owner.
Special Hazard. This type of inspection involves the fire prevention organization responding to a situation occurring within the jurisdiction or in properties similar to those in the jurisdiction. This often involves responding to analysis of data on fires or code violations-for instance, fire inspectors may discover illegal fireworks at several businesses and so check every business selling fireworks in the jurisdiction. After The Station nightclub fire in 2003, many departments made special efforts to inspect all nightclubs and bars to prevent a similar tragedy in their jurisdictions.
The best enforcement model often combines a mix of each of these inspection types. For example, the prevention program may have several inspectors whose responsibility is to issue permits and perform inspections based on those permits. Other inspectors may normally perform routine inspections while responding to complaints as they arise. All prevention personnel may be used when special hazard inspections are needed. This combination of inspections provides for the most efficient and effective use of personnel in ensuring the safety of the community.
Where Is It Performed?
Most model codes provide for code enforcement in all structures or properties, though some jurisdictions limit the scope of inspections, such as by exempting farm structures. Routine inspections of private dwellings are generally not permitted and may be considered a violation of a citizen’s rights under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Inspectors may, however, respond to complaints or visible hazards within private dwellings. Depending on the model code in use, most or nearly all of the properties in a jurisdiction may be within the scope of the fire or life safety code. Even wildlands, previously considered outside the scope of most codes, are now required to be in compliance with the International Code Council’s Urban-Wildland Interface Code in some states.16
Occasionally, an inspector will be refused access to a property. When this occurs, the fire inspector has several options:
- If the occupant feels this is just a bad time for the inspection (a busy day, for example), the fire inspector may elect to reschedule the inspection.
- If the inspector sees a violation or is responding to a complaint, the inspector may seek an administrative warrant.
- If the inspector is continually refused entry over a period of time, with or without good reason, the inspector may again seek an administrative warrant to perform the inspection.
Administrative warrants, commonly known as inspection warrants, were established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Camara vs. Municipal Court of San Francisco.17 The court acknowledged that a routine inspection of the physical condition of a property is less intrusive on Fourth Amendment rights than a search by law enforcement officers for the fruits and instrumentalities of a crime. (8) As a result, procuring an administrative warrant is generally easier than securing a criminal search warrant, as probable cause may be given when a routine inspection is scheduled and entry is denied. Remember, however, that very few fire or life safety codes include routine inspections of private dwellings within their scope.
THE NEGATIVE SIDE OF CODE ENFORCEMENT
Most model codes require an inspector to issue written notice of any violations found. Some jurisdictions enforce code violations as criminal charges, issuing summonses or citations to the responsible party. It is in the issuing of these notices of violations that the downside of code enforcement becomes visible. The fire inspector is often seen as a “firefighter,” and firefighters are everybody’s friend-everybody’s friend, that is, until he issues a written violation notice or, even worse, a summons or citation. Then the friendly firefighter becomes a police officer, and very few citizens see police officers as their friends when being investigated.
Negative feelings against a fire inspector can encompass the whole fire department or even the entire city government. Complaints to the chief, mayor, or city council are not uncommon. Letters to newspaper editors may refer to fire inspectors as “jack-booted thugs” or “government oppressors.” There can be some serious effects on the department and its personnel as a result, such as the following:
- The offending fire inspector may be removed from his position in inspections, or he may be removed from the department entirely.
- The chief may decide to reduce or eliminate code enforcement functions after receiving angry complaints from citizens or local government officials.
- The mayor or governing board may elect to reduce funding to fire prevention programs or to the fire department as a whole as punishment for the perceived overstepping of the bounds of the fire department’s duties.
- In agencies dependent on donations, the controversy may lead to a significant reduction in donations.
None of the situations listed above are good for the fire department; even if none of them happen, just having the fire prevention program’s good name besmirched can lower morale in the entire fire department. Even worse than lowering morale, this situation could create or widen a gap in the bond between field suppression forces and fire prevention personnel. In losing the support of the suppression forces, the fire prevention program will lose its greatest ally in making the community safer. Good public relations and an attitude of cooperation are critical to preventing these situations.
ADMINISTRATIVE ISSUES IN CODE ENFORCEMENT
Managing a successful fire prevention program can be a difficult and time-consuming job. Program managers must have strong abilities in the core skills for effective public administration: resource management, public access, communication, and organization.18
Four main resource types must be managed in a fire prevention office: fiscal resources, human resources, facilities and equipment resources, and information resources. All are critical to the success of the fire prevention organization, and all can generate significant headaches when things don’t run smoothly. Each presents separate challenges to the program manager, requiring the technical assistance of experts in each field.
Providing for public access to fire prevention information often entails working within the Freedom of Information Act. This act recognizes “the right of any member of the public, citizen or noncitizen alike, to obtain records created and maintained by public agencies.” (18) Excluding certain documents exempted by the act, any document requested must be turned over within a given timeframe. Any official failing to comply in the specified time period could face court-imposed penalties. (8) Inspection reports are not generally exempted from the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. (8)
The National Fire Academy’s Advanced Fire Administration Course Guide defines communication as “a process by which information, beliefs, and perceptions are exchanged among people through a common system that includes verbal, visual, and behavioral symbols and signs.” (18) The course guide further states that “communication occurs through writing/reading, speaking/listening, and actions/observation.” (18) In other words, almost everything we do communicates something to someone.
It is vitally important that the program manager set the tone for all communication between the fire prevention organization and its customers. Instilling an attitude of cooperation in code enforcement personnel will help to minimize conflicts with citizens during the enforcement process. Inspectors need to communicate to the citizens that compliance with the code is necessary but that the fire prevention organization is willing to work with the citizen rather than simply issue summonses or citations to those not in compliance.
The fire prevention program manager must work closely with field suppression forces to ensure a smooth flow of information between the field units and the fire prevention organization. Field suppression companies are often in a position to recognize hazards or violations, whereas inspectors are often in a position to identify features of a specific property that could prove important during an emergency. Each party must forward that information to the other. This exchange of information is beneficial to both parties and greatly contributes to the ability of each group to protect the community.
Establishing the goals and objectives to be accomplished should be the first priority of a fire prevention program. It is imperative that the organization establish clear, specific goals. These goals should be included in the written standard operating procedures of the organization and must be understood by all prevention personnel. These goals become the mark by which the success of the organization is measured. As an example, goals may include reducing the number of fires in commercial kitchens by 50 percent within two years or reducing the number of code violations found in public assembly occupancies by 25 percent within five years.
The fire prevention program must be organized in a manner that best supports the goals of the organization. If a goal is to reduce the number of fires and casualties in public assembly occupancies, then the program should be organized to support that goal. Many fire prevention programs see their responsibilities expanding, stretching thin the limited resources available. These organizations must remain focused on their established goals to ensure effective delivery of core fire prevention services. Fire prevention goals should be reviewed annually and adjusted to reflect emerging trends or significant changes in the organization or community.
The responsibility for community safety falls to local fire officials, government administrators, and elected officials. Virtually every major fatal fire in the history of the United States can be directly attributed to the failure of local officials to implement effective fire and life safety codes and then ensure compliance through adequate code enforcement. A review of the fatal incidents listed at the beginning of this article shows that nearly 1,500 people died behind inadequate exits in these six incidents. This may have been somewhat understandable in the early 1900s, but 100 young adults dying in a nightclub fire in 2003 is completely unacceptable. These deaths are exactly the reason that code enforcement must become a critical element of every fire prevention program. Benjamin Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” (11) Code enforcement simply ensures that everyone exercises their ounce of prevention.
Fairfax County (VA) Code Reference Package
The current edition of the Code Reference Package is based on the International Code Council’s 2009 Fire and Building Codes. The package was created for architects, engineers, designers, and installers, but it’s also useful to building managers, tenants, and other code users.
The intent of the package is to maximize fire prevention practices by ensuring structures and systems are designed, installed, and tested under the appropriate codes and with a minimum number of errors and delays.
The package is produced by the Engineering Plans Review Branch of the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Fire Marshal.
The Code Reference Package provides a list of current codes and standards in use by the Office of the Fire Marshal. It provides guidelines and diagrams to help users comply with codes during the design and construction of buildings and explains commonly overlooked or misinterpreted regulatory requirements throughout the review, approval, and construction processes.
However, referring to the Code Reference Package does not exempt the user from consulting and complying with the actual code. Key sections include the following:
The Fairfax County Office of the Fire Marshal also maintains a Web site with links to other guidelines, publications, permit requirements, and more. It is at http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/fr/prevention/.
BEN COFFMAN is a law enforcement-certified fire marshal assigned as the explosives enforcement program manager with the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Fire Marshal. He is a 20-year veteran of the fire service, is certified as a fire inspector II, and is a Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development certified fire official. He has an undergraduate degree in fire science from the University of Maryland University College and a graduate degree in national security from American Military University.
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2. Schorow, S. (2005) The Cocoanut Grove Fire: New England Remembers. Beverley, MA: Commonwealth Editions.
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13. City of Staunton Fire Prevention Office. (2003). The Proper Marking of Fire Apparatus Access Roads. Staunton, VA: City of Staunton Printing Office.
14. County of Fairfax Fire Prevention Division. (2003). Code Reference Package for Architects, Engineers, Designers, and Installers. Retrieved on 21 March 2005 from http://fairfaxcounty.gov/fire/prev/2000coderefpkg.pdf.
15. Sites, Steven. Electronic Citation [personal email]. 5 April 2005.
16. International Code Council. (2003). 2003 International Urban-Wildland Interface Code. Falls Church, VA: International Code Council.
17. Camara vs. Municipal Court of City and County of San Francisco, 387 US 523. (1967). Catalog of Supreme Court Cases (1937-1975). Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
18. National Fire Academy. (2002). Advanced Fire Administration Course Guide. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.