THE IMPACT OF BUILDING CODE CHANGES ON FIRE SERVICE SAFETY

BY RICHARD R. LICHT

Although dramatic changes have been made in U.S. building codes over the past several years, most of these have been made without significant input from the group that faces the dangerous challenges of fire suppression-the fire service.

Changes to the building codes are driven largely by architects, engineers, building owners, construction material manufacturers, and others focused on controlling or reducing construction costs. There is surprisingly little testimony from the firefighters, fire marshals, fire chiefs, and fire inspectors and investigators. Among their own peer groups, the various fire services participate in the development of fire codes, but there has been historically little crossover communication between construction interests and fire services when building codes are revised.


Unfortunately, fire services professionals are often not educated in building technology. Even veteran firefighters can be at a loss to express themselves in “building code language” at technical committee meetings; as a result, their contribution may be lost. A lack of specialized education in building construction can cost lives if firefighters are unprepared to identify specific construction deficiencies or hazards while fighting fires. At the same time, most engineers, architects, and manufacturers may never have faced a structural collapse during a fire and therefore lack experience in dealing with fire hazards up close.

In the article “Are Architects, Engineers and Code-Writing Officials Friends of the Firefighter?” Vincent Dunn, a retired Fire Department of New York deputy chief, concluded that the code development community has embraced modern building construction methods without adequate consideration of the hazards they pose to firefighters.1

Dunn identifies multiple areas of concern in the newest building code and standards. These include allowance of lightweight construction materials, including particle board I-beams, lightweight steel bar joist-truss for floor and roof construction, sheet metal C-beams for floor and roof assemblies, and insufficient spray-on insulation for steel structural members. Dunn also questions the elimination of fire-resistive construction to contain fires in favor of sprinklers.

Dunn’s assessment isn’t surprising. There is mounting evidence that recent code changes designed to reduce construction costs are detrimental to building occupants and firefighters.

BUILDING CODE BACKGROUND

Over the past 30 years, the former three national model building codes groups-the Building Officials and Code Administrators International (BOCA), the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI), and the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO)-have called for increased use of sprinklers while steadily rolling back requirements for smoke control and fire-resistant components. They include fire and smoke dampers, doors, fireproofing, firestop systems, fire-rated glazing, fire-rated walls, and fire-rated ceiling assemblies. Fire-rated components and materials help control the spread of fire and limit the damage to a burning building and surrounding structures. More importantly, materials that contain or control fires give building occupants sufficient time to escape and allow firefighters to act before the structure collapses.


The new International Building Code (IBC) represents a consolidation of the three regional model codes. To make the adoption of the IBC attractive to as many jurisdictions as possible, the International Code Council incorporated the least restrictive provisions of each former model code. Consequently, the new codes, which have been widely adopted throughout the United States, represent an overall reduction in fire and life safety.

IBC CONSTRUCTION TRENDS

For example, BOCA allowed certain buildings with sprinklers to be constructed with no area restrictions or “fire ratings” as long as they are only one-story high. Under the IBC and the recently completed NFPA 5000 Building Code, such buildings can now be two stories high and need not include fire-resistive construction.

The SBCCI Standard Building Code required structurally independent fire walls that separate building units to have a four-hour fire resistance rating. However, the new codes have reduced the ratings to as little as two or three hours in most cases, depending on a building’s occupancy and use.

The ICBO Uniform Building Code allowed sprinklers to be “traded off” for increases in the allowable height or area of buildings, while the IBC and NFPA 5000 Building Code allow increases in height and area by as much as 200 to 300 percent without increasing fire-resistant construction. Tables 1 and 2 compare the allowable heights and areas of the former model codes with those of the new IBC.

ARE SPRINKLERS ALONE ENOUGH?

Both construction and fire officials agree on the value of a properly designed, well maintained sprinkler system for commercial buildings. However, when fire service professionals vigorously campaign for increased use of sprinklers, they are frequently unaware that the installation of sprinklers simultaneously triggers a myriad of code provisions that permit multiple reductions and the complete elimination of many other built-in fire and smoke protection features that would otherwise be required by the building codes. Under the new building codes, any and all such trade-offs could be applied in the same structure when sprinklers are installed.


The National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA) promotes sprinkler trade-offs on the basis of cost savings and the economic incentive to install active fire protection. Examples of what it calls “trade-ups” are listed on the NFSA Web site and described as construction “cost savings benefits” for installing sprinkler systems. According to the NFSA, sprinklers

• Permit unlimited areas in two-story business occupancies, factories, mercantile and storage buildings (IBC Section 507.3),

• Delete the one-hour fire resistance rating for attics and under floor concealed spaces used for storage of combustible materials (IBC Section 413.2),

• Cancel the requirement for fire dampers at HVAC penetrations of one hour partitions that also serve as tenant separation and corridor walls (IBC Section 715.5.3),

• Permit reductions in the minimum stairway width requirements (IBC Section 1003.3.3.1),

• Eliminate the requirement for a smoke barrier around an area of refuge (IBC Section 1003.2.13.5.2).

In fact, there are literally hundreds of code-approved provisions to eliminate or reduce fire and smoke control features in the IBC when sprinklers are installed. This trend to reduce or eliminate passive features while installing more sprinklers flies in the face of traditional views on fire safety as espoused by generations of fire scientists, fire protection engineers, and published experts.

According to the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Protection Handbook (18th edition, 1997), Section 1, Chapter 1:

“It is important to remember that fire protection requires the development of an integrated system of balanced protection that uses many different design features and systems to reinforce one another and to cover for one another in case of the failure of any one. Defense in depth and engineered redundancy are concepts that also are relevant here. The process of achieving that integration, balance, and redundancy to attain fire safety objectives is the essence of fire protection engineering, including codes and standards.

“This means that success is not measured by the extent of use of any one technology or system or code. Success is measured by the extent of usage of effectively designed, integrated fire protection systems. No one system should be considered disposable and no one system should be considered a panacea.

“Passive fire protection provides the final opportunity to stop the fire and smoke but also plays an essential role in providing automatic systems with a manageable fire to act on. Passive protection is designed to confine fire and smoke in zones, a concept called compartmentation. Special attention is given to protection of the building’s structural framework.”

In an article in the July 31, 2001, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, Don Bliss, New Hampshire state fire marshal, was quoted as saying: “I’m very pro-sprinkler, but when you’re talking about fire safety, you can’t have just one line of protection. If we’re depending on a sprinkler system to function and it fails, people will be at considerably more risk.”2 (http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/ article.cgi? file=/chronicle/archive/ 2001/07/31/BU84064.DTL)

The San Francisco Chronicle article summarized the problems arising from over-reliance on sprinklers at the expense of balanced protection. John Klote, a nationally recognized fire- and smoke-control expert from McLean, Virginia, said, “We aren’t including redundancy, which has been the cornerstone of fire safety over the decades. Everyone agrees that sprinklers are extremely good, but they are not perfect. If you have removed most of your other life-safety devices and then you have a deficiency in your sprinkler or the fire overpowers your sprinklers, you can have real problems.”


Noted building construction expert Francis L. Brannigan warns in his book, Building Construction for the Fire Service, that “there has been a trend to use more sprinklers in buildings, often with trade-offs such a reduction in traditional passive (built-in fire and smoke) protection. With most of the fire protection eggs in the sprinkler basket, it is vital that the basket be carefully watched.” 3

But is the “sprinkler basket” being carefully watched? An NFPA report, “U.S. Experience with Sprinklers,” published in September 2001, assesses the impact of fires in public buildings during the period 1989 to 1998. The buildings studied include educational; health care and correctional facilities; apartments; hotels/motels; department stores; offices; and industrial, manufacturing, and storage structures. In buildings with sprinklers, the sprinklers operated in 82.7 percent of the reported fire incidents while failing to operate in 17.3 percent of the reported fire incidents (Table 3).

THE HUMAN FACTOR

Passive devices such as fire and smoke dampers and fire doors also fail to operate as intended because of human error, equipment malfunction, or unauthorized tampering. Historical data indicate that buildings without the added benefit of active fire protection, having succumbed to maintenance failures and unintentional sabotage, do not always survive well in a fire incident. On-site maintenance people are often unacquainted with the fire protection function provided by fire-resistant wall, floor, and ceiling assemblies. If a fire door is propped open or a wall or floor penetration has been left unrepaired or if fireproofing has been scraped away to accommodate remodeling or repairs, a building’s safety features cannot perform as intended.

GREATER CHALLENGES FOR FIREFIGHTERS

Ultimately, reductions and eliminations of fire and smoke safety features based on sprinkler trade-offs are of paramount significance to firefighters. These compromises are predicated entirely on sprinkler dependability. If sprinklers fail to operate satisfactorily in buildings built to the newest editions of the model codes, then those who enter a fire scene are going to be working under more stressful and dangerous conditions than ever before.

However, even when sprinklers activate satisfactorily, firefighters will be exposed to new challenges when forced to deal with fire control in substantially larger spaces. With building codes permitting expanded height and areas, reductions in fire ratings of floors and wall assemblies, longer corridors distances, more combustible materials, narrower stairways, and fewer smoke control features, there is a greater potential for fires to spin out of control and spread to adjacent areas. This, in turn, will complicate the mission of firefighters.

Three of these critical reductions are summarized in Tables 4, 5, and 6.

A Call to Action

In response to this ominous trend, the fire service needs to play a more active role as participants in the building code development process. There are more than one million paid and volunteer firefighters in the United States. These front-line soldiers in the war against fire clearly have a vested interest in building code issues. The time is overdue for the collective interests of the fire service to be reflected in the building codes. (To the International Code Council’s credit, it has initiated programs to include fire service professionals in the building code development process.)

At present, only a few dozen fire officials take an active speaking role at the building code hearings hosted by the International Code Council. In addition to becoming more knowledgeable about building code issues, firefighters can also leverage union resources, confer with their management, write letters, get involved with local code officials, and support local and national code modifications that promote balanced fire protection design.

Firefighters are called on daily to take the ultimate risk in protecting life and property. They deserve a voice and a place at the table as crucial decisions are made that affect their lives.

Endnotes

1. National Concrete Masonry Association Web site, http://www.ncma.org/online/Fire/vincedunn.pdf.)

2. San Francisco Chronicle, July 31, 200, http:// sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/ 2001/07/31/BU84064.DTL.

3. Brannigan, Frank L. Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition, 1994.

Additional Resources

Klote, John H., “Compartment and Dampers are Essential for Life Safety,” The Alliance for Fire and Smoke Containment and Control, http://www.afscc.org/ AFSCCcompartmentationArticle.pdf.

Koffel, William E., “Reliability of Automatic Sprinkler Systems,” Firestop Contractors International Association, http://www.fcia.org/articles/sprinklerreliability-3-04.pdf.

International Firestop Council, “Saving Lives Through Passive Fire Protection,” http://www.firestop.org/ pubs/0108Savinglives.PDF.

Jones, Lee G., “Making the Case for Balanced Design: Why Sprinklers Are Not Enough,” Sprinkler Age, Vol. 17, No. 9, 1998, http://www.fcia.org/articles/ sprinklers.htm.

Licht, Richard R., “Maintaining Life Safety Effectiveness in the New Building Codes,” International Firestop Council, http://www.firestop.org/pubs/ 0107LifeSafetyEffect.pdf.

Licht, Richard R., “Balancing Active and Passive Fire Protection Systems in the Building Codes,” The Alliance for Fire and Smoke Containment and Control, http://www.afscc.org/press1.htm .

“Non-Residential Structure Fires in 2000,” U.S. Fire Administration/National Fire Data Center, http:// www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/tfrs/v3i10.pdf.

RICHARD R. LICHT is the technical director of the Alliance for Fire and Smoke Containment and Control (AFSCC) in Tarrytown, New York. He has more than 30 years of experience with fire protection methods, materials and testing, and fire code standards. The AFSCC was established in 1999 by building enforcement, construction, design, and manufacturing professionals in response to the need for a well-coordinated educational effort to promote the value of balanced fire protection design in the built environment. Its members consist of companies, organizations, and individuals in the construction industry with an interest in fire safety.

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