International Fire Safety Legislation: An Overview

By George H. Potter

When we consider fire safety codes, ordinances, standards, and similar legislation, we must consider the tremendous number of factors and interests involved, many favorable, yet many contrary. The following is very brief overview of the mountains of laws, standards, codes and so forth that generally help–or in some cases hinder–firefighters’ efforts in fire prevention and protection.

Generally, fire safety legislation exists in nearly every nation. Some are extensive and complete while others are extremely basic, if not primitive. The origins of nearly all of this legislation are as varied as the number of countries where it is applied. In the United States, for example, over the past hundred or so years, the federal government has enacted substantial legislation on fire safety and fire prevention. However, our country, by its very nature, namely a federal republic comprised of fifty states, is very fragmented when it come to establishing unified or all-encompassing legislation. Each state, county, and municipality creates and applies legislation tailored to its particular wants, needs and at times whims, often conflicting with that of a neighboring community. In many states you can exceed their codes at a local level. Also, standards and codes do not originate on Capitol Hill in Washington, but principally in the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which coordinates the creation and diffusion of codes and standards related to nearly every activity in the country, including fire safety, created by more than 80 entities in the United States and other countries,. Many ANSI standards are referenced in the building codes (e.g., the International Building Code (IBC) references many ANSI standards that are driven for particular industries, such as elevator manufacturers).

The prime source of fire safety standards is, as we all well know, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which publishes and constantly updates the majority of codes that form the basis for national, state, and local legislation. Although the NFPA standards and codes are not legislation but rather documents of recommended good practice, they form the foundation on which nearly all United States fire safety legislation is based. A host of other entities exist in the United States which also contribute to the creation of fire safety legislation, either through documents or by serving as approval bodies for materials, equipment, systems, and so forth. These include the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the federal technology agency that develops and promotes standards, measurements, and technology; the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), which also develops and produces standards for legislation; the Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. (UL) and Factory Mutual (FM), certification agencies for systems and components (both originated from the insurance sector); and the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA), among many others.

All of these serve as sources for the specific fire protection requirements made by local public administrations, including building codes, municipal ordinances, and so forth. However, many of these requirements come face to face with real world realities which far too often conflict with other sectors’ interests. This is particularly the case where strict building codes conflict with the vested interests of builders or promoters. There have been far too many buildings designed and built supposedly in compliance with prevailing codes only to be found to be substandard. For example, sometimes during the cause investigation following a tragic fire or a routine inspection, supposedly fire-resistive materials are found to be easily combustible, detectors are found just glued to a ceiling and thus inoperable, sprinkler heads are just screwed into a ceiling as ornamentation, and firehose stations are mounted on walls with no piping connected.

Internationally, there are as many legislative bodies as there are countries. The 46 countries comprising Europe have each developed specific regulations for their own territories. The 27 countries of the European Union (EU) have consolidated much of their individual legislation and codes, often sacrificing particular national interests to a pan-European effort toward standardization, for example, making a particular standard on portable fire extinguisher classifications or fire detection system and component specifications commonly applicable throughout all the member countries.

This European standardization applies to hundreds of fire protection-related subjects such as extinguishing agents, smoke/flame detectors, sprinkler systems, fire-resistance characteristics of materials, testing procedures, and more. This European situation is similar to that of the U.S., although a number of these countries have retained many specific national laws and regulations. In these countries, the standards and codes apply to the entire nation, such as the British Standards (BS), the German Deutsches Intitut für Normung (DIN), and the Spanish AENOR. On this international level, the International Standards Organization (ISO) is the worldwide standards-producing body comprising the national entities of 157 countries, providing information, products, and services related to property and liability risks. The ISO standards meet and often exceed individual national ones. Many ISO standards have profound influence on national legislation and standards around the world.

During the past 15 years, a number of initiatives intended to improve fire safety in Europe have emerged from diverse forums. In the mid-1990s, most of these efforts met with stiff resistance and did not get much further than proposals. However, during the more recent years of this century, several of these initiatives have received support from the European Commission, the governing body of the EU. An example of these initiatives is the recently approved classification system for building materials known as EUROCLASSES, in which a rather complicated system of ratings for characteristics and properties of materials and components is applied to give architects and builders accurate information about the materials they intend to incorporate in the design and construction of a particular project or building.

In Central and South America, it’s often a different ball game. A great many of the 43 nations, republics, island states, and protectorates have based their fire protection legislation and standards on those of the U.S., specifically NFPA. Some others have created their own legislation based on their particular characteristics, and still others have looked to Europe for guidelines. Some countries such as Mexico and Peru have extensive national and regional regulations, providing ample information on materials or systems specifications, whereas a few countries make direct reference to specific NFPA codes. Unfortunately in most of these countries the legislation is more often than not given lip service, and when a disaster strikes, the authorities look fast and furiously for the nearest scapegoat. A recent example of this was the tragic 2004 commercial mall fire in Asunción, Paraguay, in which nearly 400 people died. It was found that the three-story complex had been built and fitted with highly combustible materials and lacked sufficient fire exits. Additionally, during the initial stages of the fire, security guards locked doors, impeding most of the victims’ escape. These guards even intimidated first responding firefighters with pistols. Many of these countries try to emulate the U.S., fall real short, and have no enforcement at all.

Australia and New Zealand both have extensive legislation covering building design and construction as well as standards for equipment, systems, and installations. Australia has a very high ratio of research and testing facilities in relation to its population, performing some of the world’s most advanced investigation and research projects in fire protection, such as smoke control in various types and sizes of buildings. One of the world’s leading fire protection industries began in the land of the kangaroo.

In Asia, Japan is probably the leader in fire safety regulations, in part because of the particular characteristics of most of the nation’s residential and small- to medium-business premises construction. The Philippines and China have recently made enormous strides in improving regulations on building characteristics and fire safety, principally because of public pressure in response to numerous recent multifatality fires. These two countries have limited fire suppression capabilities, however; China may have the manpower, but does not have the know-how.

In the continent of Africa, the Republic of South Africa has numerous fire prevention and protection codes in effect, followed by certain other countries in North Africa, such as Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, although these are far behind South Africa in regard to extensive or exacting legislation. However, they are still far ahead of other countries such as Rwanda, Congo Kinshasa, Chad, Nambia, and Mali, where fire prevention and protection is given little or no consideration.

As can be seen, much has been done in many regions and countries with the objective of reducing life and property losses due to fires, but in other areas there is still much yet to be done. Historically, the United States has probably been the world leader in fire prevention and protection. Although the U.S. may be a leader in fire protection systems, it does not come close to many European countries and Japan in fire prevention. This leadership has been and still is a result of foresightedness and motivation: up-to-date codes and standards, fire technology and research, public education, and many more actions, all oriented towards the common goal of reduced life and property losses.

George H. Potter is a practicing fire protection specialist who has lived in Spain for the past 45 years. He served as an Anne Arundel County, Maryland, volunteer firefighter with the Riva Volunteer Fire Department and the Independent Hose Company in Annapolis and as an ambulance driver with the Wheaton (MD) Rescue Squad. He served six years in the United States Air Force as firefighter, apparatus driver/operator, and crew chief. He has been involved in fire protection system installation, mobile fire apparatus design, and construction and fire safety training. He is a Spain certified as a fire service instructor and a hazmat specialist and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Spanish firefighters’ association ASELF.

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