There`s a fork in the track that leads to Code Town. For the codes- and standards-publishing corporations and others steaming ahead on the fire code train, the options are simple: Either the three model code groups and the National Fire Protection Association will create and share a single national fire prevention code, or we`ll have two (instead of four) separate codes. The train is at full throttle. There`s no turning back.

The model code groups, fronted by their joint-codes management apparatus known as the International Code Congress (ICC), are making their move to enter the international market, and they need a single, unified national code structure to succeed. The inevitable unification of the model building codes has sent everyone greasing the tracks for the ISO 9000 train.

The NFPA, a power player on the fire code train by virtue of its 200 fire safety standards and codes, realized that its own goal of international expansion could not easily be achieved by opposing the model codes cartel and its building codes. (It is interesting to note that the International Association of Fire Chiefs rejected, albeit reluctantly, the NFPA`s offer of a sum of money in exchange for an endorsement of NFPA 1, Fire Prevention Code.) A name change to the International Fire Protection Association cannot be far off.

The ICC and the NFPA currently are negotiating the terms and process for a single fire code, having arrived at the mutual understanding that, in the States, there`s little left of the fire codes-purchasing community to carve up. Economic pragmatism compels this marriage of convenience designed to minimize the costs of competition, eliminate redundancy, and ensure a cut of the action for each.

The draft from the speeding fire code train has sucked on many passengers, from chiefs and fire marshals organizations already involved in the codes- and standards-making processes to fire protection equipment manufacturers to individuals throughout the fire code enforcement and fire protection communities. They defend the pursuit of headlong rush toward a homogeneous fire code with colorful but empty metaphors (“We must stop the Balkanization of the fire codes!”), unlikely prognostications of doom (“If we don`t nationalize it, the federal government will!”), pretentious attempts at international business savoir faire (“To be successful, we must be competitive in the global marketplace!”), and the everpresent slogan, “Uniformity for all!”

That the world`s fire loss leader actively seeks to sell its fire safety (codes) abroad rather than correct what ails it at home is a sad irony. That our fire service leaders gravitate toward superficial prescriptions for our deep-seated code sickness is foolishness. Our failure has been not in the writing and developing of fire codes but in our ability to ensure code compliance. We are fire prevention reactionaries. We have not provided the support to those who do the doing of the codes. Look closely at the “progressive” fire departments in the United States: How do their commitments to resources for their fire prevention bureaus stack up against their commitments to the suppression function? The greatest code in the world–be it regional, national, international, or other–cannot fix what needs fixing.

But the big wheels keep on turnin`. The Fab Four expects to arrive in Code Town with a single national fire code by 1999 or 2000.

Will the train stay on the track? The difficulties, concerns, and doubts are enormous. Those who orchestrate the ride owe the fire service some fast answers. The fire service–most specifically, the fire code officials, the fire inspectors, and the line firefighters–have the most to lose (and little to gain) from a one-size-fits-all code. Fire service members are paying passengers on this train–paying for the ride with blood, sweat, and tears on the fire/emergency scene.

The fire code community has the human resource capability to cut through the web of technical code difficulties in distilling four codes to one. The seemingly insurmountable problems arise in the process. Who administers and oversees the process? Who makes the appointments? Who has the final say? Will the process allow for better fire service representation and access? Will the process allow for timely appeal and amendment? Will the new code business provide the educational and technical services the fire inspectors need? Will the fire service have to pay for it? Will the fire service be granted the opportunity to examine a proposal before the power brokers etch it in stone? Or does this have to continue behind closed doors?

While the regional codes system allows for better fire service access and representation than the NFPA “open and consensus” process, both systems are less than perfect. It is difficult to imagine how a bigger, more complicated system such as that proposed will improve access and representation–a most critical factor in ensuring that the code works on the street. More likely it will dilute involvement of the mostly forgotten code consumers and end users.

At a recent meeting, an NFPA officer was asked, “Who will represent the firefighters and inspectors?” The chiefs associations and the Fire Marshals Association of North America (the fire service`s kissing cousin to the NFPA), was the reply, in short. I feel the wheels already bouncing on the track. Will this be another deal where 1.5 percent of the fire service gets a vote (if they`ve paid their membership dues and can afford the meetings), as in the current NFPA system? Will this be a deal wherein manufacturers with a vested financial interest in the code have a voice equal to that of the fire service? Will this be a deal like the travesty of NFPA 1123, Public Display of Fire Works, wherein the pyrotechnics industry stepped over a sleeping fire service and subverted sensible fire safety practices?

We have fallen once again to our predilection for bloated political apparatus and complicated systems. That will not make the real problems go away, but we`ll congratulate ourselves for our ingenuity in making the mousetrap bigger.

The new fire code train was set in motion because a single international building code satisfies the economic interests of the code groups. Will it be a safe stop into Code Town? Will the fire service end up paying in the long run? Time will tell. One thing is sure: This train will keep moving whether you`re on it or under it.

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