The Life Safety Code: Concepts, Trends, Developments

The Life Safety Code: Concepts, Trends, Developments


Knowledge of building construction is one of the basics of effective firefighting and efficient fire prevention. And being aware of new design trends and the potential problems they can present is a good basis for pre-planning. An architect discusses the importance of getting fire protection personnel involved in the structural design process and ways of overcoming barriers to establishing effective and enforceable life safety codes.

We have already built over 80% of the buildings that will be in use in the United States by the year 2000. Many of these existing structures were constructed under ancient or non-existent building codes, have been altered many times, have changed occupanices, and usually have far more fire safety and construction deficiencies than newer buildings.

Life Safety Code— goals and impediments

The 1981 edition of the Code for Safety to Life from Fire in Buildings and Structures (the Life Safety Code, National Fire Protection Association 101) recognizes that life safety is more than just a matter of egress during a fire or other emergency. Therefore, the code addresses those construction, protection and occupancy features in all structures (one and two-family dwellings, business and industrial occupancies, etc.) that are necessary to minimize danger to life from fire, smoke, fumes or panic. Some of these features include: a building’s contents and its hazards (which include interior decoration and furnishings that may be toxic and propagate flame along the surface to accomplish flashover ahead of sprinkler operation); fire protection equipment; and building services (elevators, rubbish chutes, incinerators, etc.).

There is concern over certain aspects of the Life Safety Code and its potential conflicts with other building codes. The NFPA’s Life Safety Committee (which is responsible for writing the Life Safety Code) is working with the Board of Coordination of Model Codes (BCMC) and the Council of American Business Officials (CABO) to reach agreements and compromises between the national model codes (which include the Standard Building Code, the Basic Building Code and the Uniform Building Code) and the NFPA’s Life Safety Code.

To have an effective and enforceable building and life safety code, it must be credible in the eyes of legislators, the enforcing authorities, the design and building professions, and the public. I believe that code enforcement by education is the best and most efficient method of gaining acceptance and compliance.

Architects must become more aware of the need for early involvement of the fire protection engineer in the design process. To be truly effective and to be economical, fire protection must be designed into the early schematics and not be a retrofit at the end of the working drawing stage.

An effective code must be uniform in content and uniformly enforced, eliminating overlapping jurisdiction as well as duplications and conflicts with other applicable codes. It must be a true consensus code, allowing all voices to be heard. It should be based on facts rather than opinions, making full use of research, modern technology, and experiences. It must seek a balance between safety and the unreasonable infringement on freedom and liberty of occupants. The code must be cost effective or it could be wasteful at best, or at worst, ignored.

The code should be coordinated and compatible with national as well as international standards, especially regarding design standards, product manufacturers, flame spread and smoke development ratings, toxicity values, etc. This is especially important with such federal programs as medicare, medicaid, Health and Human Services, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Housing and Urban Development (HUD) mortgage guarantees, etc.

I admit that all three intricacies have led to a code that is frought with exceptions; a code that is complicated and confusing. However, life itself has become more complicated, and the Life Safety Code as well as all building and fire prevention codes are merely reflecting this trend.

Construction complexities

Today, the architect is far more concerned about the functional and technical aspects of his buildings than he was a few generations ago when design work was limited to roughly sizing the structure to hold a given number of people, to be pleasing to look at, and to be strong enough to withstand time and the elements. The complexities of coordination of current construction methods, along with the sophistication of highly controlled environments have rendered the architect’s job far more intricate. Except for extremely small projects, it is highly unlikely that the same mind that conceived the program, arrangement, form, color, and composition of a building would also perform the detailed design of highly complex structural members (the heating, plumbing, electrical, and fire protection systems) or much of the complex equipment.

If the architect is to continue to take the legal responsibility for his buildings (as the architectural licensing laws of most states require, and often with no statute of limitation), he must understand all aspects of engineering, the capabilities of all building products, and the limitations of equipment design and their installation problems. He must make a special effort to fully understand all applicable codes, regulations and laws governing the building he has been commissioned to design. No matter how complicated the codes have become, the architect must not only understand the written provisions, but the philosophy behind them.

Technology has given the design profession many new and unknown materials to work with. New materials or combinations of materials are literally flooding into the building marketplace. The entire gamut of petrochemical derivatives in the form of plastic building materials can often be used to good and startling effects. Better manufacturing techniques, such as in the steel industry, permit the designer to use greater spans and construct higher buildings with larger open spaces and less material than ever before. The computer used in the design process can measure smaller and smaller tolerances and again permit the factors of safety to be reduced. The same is true for prefabricated, precut, or factory assembled buildings or components of buildings. They, too, will allow tremendous design flexibility with less material and often less expense.

These new materials are not bad in and of themselves; it is the fact that there are so many unknowns that bother the person concerned with designing for fire safety. Longer spans, more and larger open spaces, reduction in safety factors, untested burning characteristics of most plastics (including their toxicity levels and their ability to act as barriers to prevent the spread of smoke and fire) can all pose definite problems.

New design trends

The building trend is to more open structures (atriums), taller buildings (high rises), and ones that cover several blocks of enclosed space (malls). All these constructions make it difficult for firefighters to locate and evacuate occupants as well as to locate and extinguish the fire.

Megastructures often house a great number of various occupancies: office buildings, apartments, shopping centers, hospitals, etc. The mixture of occupants capable of total unassisted evacuation with those who must be defended in place or, at best, be assisted to evacuate (elderly and handicapped), puts an even greater strain on firefighters and designers concerned with fire safety.

Compartmentation is only an effective deterrent against the spread of fire and smoke if it is properly maintained after the building has been occupied. The same is true for automatic detection, extinguishment and other life safety devices. Proper maintenance is essential!

Certain fire protection philosophies are assumed for different occupancies, such as the total evacuation system for schools and the “protect in place” system for health care and penal occupancies. Fire drill training is as important in both these systems as is early warning. Again, education is essential to proper performance, and research is essential to assure the philosophy is correct.

Large open spaces are very much admired by contemporary designers. Office landscaping is often used in commercial or business occupancies. This trend was probably first noticed in banks where all of the officers, secretaries, and clerks sit out in the open and are highly visible to the public.

When one combines “dollar” architecture with overcrowding, lack of fire barriers and the latest ala mode design in an era of increased arson fires, one will be constructing a potential disaster—unless safety considerations are given proper attention by a fire protection engineer.

The problems come about due to the extreme quantity of plastics and other synthetic materials that are used in the so-called office landscaping furniture. The problems are compounded by the fact that there are few, if any, smokestop or firestop barriers; there is often a lack of an exit access corridor, protected or not, to a stair; and no definite aisles or pathways to follow to seek refuge. Overcrowding is easy to achieve in an open arrangement as is overloading of electrical circuits. Extension cords under rugs or draped over furniture, machines and devices is common.

Department store designers often deliberately hide or at least confuse the path of exit in order to lead customers past the counters containing impulse goods. They intentionally retard the flow of traffic in order to give consumers time to browse. Doors to grade, exits or even exit signs are often impossible to locate under normal conditions, let alone during a fire or other emergency when people are in a state of stress and visibility may be reduced.

Architects are also fond of large areas of glass both on the exterior and in the interior design of buildings, enhancing the chance of fire spread by radiation.

Fire protection design

In a highly inflationary market with soaring interest rates, designers are told constantly to cut budget. This leads to many shortcuts in the design and construction process: fixed windows are cheaper to install and can save money in operational costs due to reduced heating and cooling loads; corridor walls are often reduced to 1/2-inch Sheetrock on metal or wooden studs; even exterior walls are covered with thin layers of synthetic plastic resins and the voids filled with cellular foamed resins. As long as plastics remain cheaper to purchase and install, they will be used more and more.

When one combines this form of “dollar” architecture with overcrowding, lack of fire barriers and the latest ala mode design in an era of increased arson fires, one will be constructing a potential disaster—unless given proper attention by a qualified fire protection engineer.

Fire protection design in modern buildings has become far too complex to leave in the hands of amateurs. Further, building codes, standards and regulations must become more complex and dynamic to deal with these construction trend changes.

Government at all levels (federal, state and local) has attempted to solve the problem of fire and life safety by regulation. Experience has played an important role in the modification of building and fire codes. Events such as the 1942 Cocoanut Grove Night Club fire in Boston, MA, in which 492 lives were lost, focused national attention upon the importance of adequate exits and related fire safety features. The fires at St. Anthony’s (1949) in Effingham, IL, and the Hartford Hospital (1961) in Hartford, CT, caused a nationwide quality assessment of construction and fire protection systems.

Many of the changes brought about by these events were well thought out and have had a lasting impact. A few, however, were panic overreaction and were not enforced or soon forgotten. Let us examine the building type that has brought the current potential conflicts into the limelight—health care facilities.

New construction trends (taller, more open buildings) make it difficult to locate and evacuate occupants as well as to locate and extinguish the fire.

Today’s hospital is no longer a place to go to and die comfortably nursed. Today’s hospital must, regardless of the type of disease to be treated, facilitate the diagnosing and healing of the ill; rehabilitate the crippled; prevent illness and accident of the well; and be a citadel of research, education and knowledge.

For years, the role of the hospital was limited and its requirements changed so slowly as to be scarcely noticeable. This is not true today where change is constant, dramatic and rapid. Hospital design is becoming more and more complex, more technical and highly specialized, and the demand for change is accelerating at a staggering pace.

Each part of the hospital is designed for a specialized use, essential to the operation of the whole and organically related. Furthermore, this high degree of specialization is dependent upon the development of the most intricate and expensive mechanical and electrical systems and apparatus, some even more costly and complex than the structure that houses them.

Without a doubt, hospitals are the most complex and difficult of all building types. They are also the most regulated—and that is both a curse and a blessing. They are regulated by the federal government, the Health Care Finance Administration (HCFA), the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), the Farmer’s Home Loan programs, Hill-Burton, OSHA, the state licensure laws and state hospital and sanitary codes. In addition, the local building and fire departments, the local health and welfare offices, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals, third party payers, local health systems agencies, and insurance companies also play a part.

This regulation includes periodic inspection and enforced compliance. The blessing comes about because most of these agencies use the Life Safety Code, therefore eliminating conflicts and ensuring safety. It is also without a doubt that hospitals are one of the safest of all building types from the point of view of fire safety. It should be kept in mind that the Life Safety Code has been mandated by the federal government since World War II.

The curse comes about when the Life Safety Code comes in conflict with a state or local code that is not compatible. Much waste, duplication, time delays, expense, poor patient care, etc., result with little or no increase in life safety from fire.

The cost of health care in the United States is skyrocketing. This is due in no small measure to the capital expenditures forced on hospitals to comply with codes and regulations. So much so that New York state has placed a moratorium on all hospital construction for at least a year. The federal government has mandated that the Fire Safety Evaluation System be employed when evaluating all existing hospitals because of its proven cost-saving benefits. Everything must be done to reduce costs and yet not compromise safety.

We must all be concerned if we are not to upset our entire health care system. It is already estimated that over 60% of the hospitals in the nation are on the edge of bankruptcy.


Technology should play a more important part in the modification of building, fire and life safety codes than it does. However, in order for research efforts and technological improvements to find their way into codes, two efforts are required: First, data on building construction, design and safety needs have to be collected, evaluated and disseminated to code-writing groups. Second, there must be a mandatory review process established for all existing codes and standards.

Unfortunately, there are many code-writing groups and many codes, building laws, standards or rules that are not reviewed for years, even decades. This permits obsolete provisions to stay in place and does not allow the codes to keep pace with the latest state of the art. A Life Safety Code must have an operational section as well as a construction section.

It is incumbent upon all of us to work to eliminate conflicts between codes, to eliminate overlapping jurisdictions and to constantly improve our codes. If this leads to more complex, flexible and difficult codes, we will have to grow with them.

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