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Taking Ownership: Getting Involved in the Building Code Process

Fire fighters take great pride in the performance of their jobs. But to be effective, there’s ongoing training and preparation needed.

Having adequate and safe staffing levels, training, certifications and personal protective clothing and equipment meeting all Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and National Fire

Protection Association (NFPA) standards are just a few examples that help ensure fire fighters return safely to the firehouse following an emergency call.

Another important safety aspect involves building codes. Building codes affect fire fighter safety every day, but too often fire departments and fire fighters don’t understand why it’s important to participate in the building code development process.

The IAFF is launching a fire prevention and safety project designed to increase awareness and encourage active fire service involvement in developing and passing new building and fire codes, as well as promoting enforcement.

In December 2011, fire service organization leaders from across the country met at IAFF headquarters to discuss the effectiveness of the current role of the fire service in the building code process at the national, state and local level, and how fire fighters can better understand and become actively involved in the fire and building code development process.

“It’s important that IAFF members know they have a voice in the process,” says IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger. “We must take ownership of our work environment, and the buildings we respond to and operate in.”

“Too many times, fire fighters arrive at a fire without any understanding of the building codes or the risks associated with the construction,” says Cleveland, OH Local 93 member Sean DeCrane, who serves as a battalion chief for the Cleveland Division of Fire. He represents the IAFF to the International Code Council and has been working on the IAFF Division of Occupational Health, Safety and

Medicine initiative to improve involvement in the building code process.

Statistics have shown that fires and civilian deaths have decreased across the United States and Canada. The misperception is that building codes are becoming more restrictive and buildings are less dangerous. In a report released in 2009, more than 40,470 fire fighters were injured on the fire ground between 2003-2006, of which 10,560 were moderate or severe, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Fire fighters remain at high risk. Construction materials are now lighter and, as a result, fires spread at a faster rate. In addition, more than three dozen states have yet to mandate residential fire sprinklers, posing an increased threat to fire fighters in these jurisdictions.

In 2010, an effort driven by the IAFF led to a code change requiring the protection of light-weight construction to be adopted into the International Residential Code (IRC) and NFPA 1, Fire Code.

The change provided additional protection to fire fighters forced to operate in one- and two-family homes constructed with light-weight structural elements.

“The fire environment is rapidly changing,” says 30-year fire service veteran Peter Van Dorpe, a member of Chicago, IL Local 2 and Director of Training at the Chicago Fire Department. “We can’t be reactive and expect to stay in step with the times.”

According to statistics, the biggest loss of life occurs where building codes aren’t readily enforced in residential dwellings. “If we don’t have a seat at the table, then we will be left behind,” says Van Dorpe. “It is critically important for our safety and for the people we protect to be involved.”

The code adoption was a good first step, but more needs to be done to protect fire fighters.
 “We all have the same goal, and that’s for everyone to go home to their families at the end of the day,” says 35-year veteran fire fighter Michael T. Reilly, a member of Fairfax County, VA Local 2068. “Fire fighters have to take an educated risk. We need to know what the building codes are, what type of construction is being used and become more cognizant of how the building will react in certain conditions.”

For fire fighters, the only way to take ownership is to dig deep into what many describe as a highly technical and laborious process.

As more residential buildings are replacing solid joist construction with modern lightweight construction and fast-growth dimensional lumber, the rate of collapse is quicker and encompasses larger areas.

When it comes to lightweight construction, there is no margin of safety in a floor collapse.

 “There is a performance issue during fire conditions, and the fire service has tried to create a level of awareness for it,” says Chicago Local 2 member James M. Dalton, a coordinator of research and development for the Chicago Fire Department. In conjunction with Underwriters Laboratories Inc., he helped conduct an eye-opening and comprehensive study that examined residential floor collapses. In collaboration with the IAFF and other fire service partners, Dalton will release new research on residential structure fires this year.

“It is much better to address the issues in the building code process instead of a negative outcome when it comes to a real life event,” Dalton says.
With municipalities still struggling financially, fire fighters may think they can’t take the time to help promote preventive measures. However, fire fighters will continue to trade one protective force for another if they don’t take the time to ensure their work environment is properly protected.

The best enforcement is on the local level where fire fighters can make the greatest difference by immersing themselves in the codes, building relationships with community leaders and making sure their communities are aware of how building codes affect public safety, too.

Some fire departments, fire chiefs and fire fighters are reluctant to get involved because of the well-financed lobbying efforts of the builder and realtor groups, including the National Association of Home Builders.

“We can’t sell ourselves short. We must educate our members on the direct effect the code process has on our health and safety. Being involved helps ensure our members, and the community they serve, a safer work and living environment,” says DeCrane.

The IAFF will continue to work with the code development process with the ICC and NFPA. Under a recent Memorandum of Understanding with the NFPA, General President Schaitberger will soon nominate an IAFF representative on each of the four NFPA Regional Fire Code Development Committees and a principal member and one alternate member on four additional NFPA committees.

This includes the Technical Committee addressing the Fire Code, the Life Safety Code, the Hazardous Materials Code and the Building Construction and Safety Code.
“We will stay involved but we must also educate the public and the politicians about our duties and risks,” says Schaitberger. “We must be our own advocates and educate them on the need to protect our members and how the codes are important in achieving this goal.”

Comments (4) -

  • Randy Gulley (Indianapolis)

    3/7/2012 12:34:23 PM |

    Totally agree with Pat Morrison's article.  Note in this article about state mandated residential sprinkler systems.  
    It is hard to get a state to mandate something when "our own" whether they be career or volunteer are opposed to residential sprinklers in the home.  I guess we need to educate our own before we educate state lawmakers.

  • Sean DeCrane (Cleveland)

    3/15/2012 3:03:01 PM |

    In a follow up to Pat's article, the International Code Council has just posted the Group A code change proposals for the 2015 Edition of the International Building Code. Members can go to www.iccsafe.org/.../12-13-ProposedChanges-A.aspx and see the proposed changes that may potentially impact the buildings we respond to and operate in. Members may atend the hearings April 29th - May 6th in Dallas, TX. Members can register and speak in favor or against specific proposals during the hearings. Check the hearing schedule.
    In the coming weeks we will post code change proposals that potentially effect the membership.

  • Sean DeCrane (Cleveland)

    3/22/2012 2:09:44 AM |

    As Brother Gulley mentions residential sprinklers are life safety devices that also help protect fire fighter safety. For our Brothers and Sisters in Tennessee there is pending legislation to ban the ability of local jurisdictions from adopting residential sprinklers. You can view the information below and this is a situation where it has more implications than just sprinklers. If the state legislature can ban a local jurisdiction from adopting a life safety aspect from a national minimum code where will it stop if they have other issues they want to press upon local jurisdictions? How many otehr National Standards can they effectively ban?

    Here is the information and make your voice heard that the state should not remove minimum life safety aspects from national codes or standards.

    Proposed legislation that effects building codes.

    TN H 2639

    State Resources

    FYI and action if appropropriate.

    SAME AS:
    TN S 2492

    Watson E (R)

    Building Codes



    House Calendar and Rules Committee

    Relates to Codes; prohibits sprinkler requirements in local building codes in one-family and two-family dwellings.

    From HOUSE Committee on COMMERCE: Recommend passage with amendment.


    16.1.5 Fire Alarms, Smoke Detectors, Extinguishers

    16.1.6 Fire Standards

    16.4.8 Apartments and Other Multi-Family Housing

    open session of the legislative body at meetings specially called on two (2) different days that are no less than two (2) weeks apart. Mandatory sprinkler requirements shall be voted on in an ordinance or resolution separate from any other ordinance or resolution addressing building construction safety standards;

  • Sean DeCrane (Cleveland)

    4/18/2012 12:29:42 AM |

    Dear Memebrs,

    for members who are interested in supporting the requirement for residential sprinklers Jason Averill from NIST forwarded over a brief summary of a recent report issued from one of his collegues. below is copied Jason's note and it emphasizes the cost savings versus lives saved with residential sprinklers.

    While the report is technical in nature this is a very nice and concise summary.

    One of my colleagues here (an economist) conducted a rigorous analysis of residential sprinklers.  He was able to evaluate their (cost) effectiveness while controlling for the effects of other variables (like smoke alarms).  It’s a little technical, but some highlights include:

    ·         Results show sprinklers offer life-safety protection [number of lives saved] greater than that given by smoke alarms.

    ·         If fire sprinklers had comprised 10% of the total single family housing stock, it is estimated that 194 civilian fatalities, 567 civilian injuries, and 735 firefighter injuries would have been prevented. In terms of fatalities prevented, a 10% expansion of sprinkler use is similar to the benefits from graduated driver licensing policies (e.g., 131 prevented teen fatalities in 2002 (Dee et al., 2005)) and from an expansion of primary seatbelt enforcement laws on teen fatalities (e.g., 121 prevented teen fatalities per year (Carpenter and Stehr, 2008))..

    ·         However, smoke alarms are more cost effective on a per-life-saved basis.  Tengs et al. (1995) found that the cost per life saved per year for smoke alarms was $0.3 million (adjusted to $2008). Tengs et al. (1995) did not evaluate sprinklers; however, a 1997 Swedish study by Ramsberg and Sjöberg (1997) used a similar methodology as Tengs et al. (1995), and estimated the cost per life saved per year to be $0.7 million (adjusted to $2008) for residential fire sprinklers.  The results of the current analysis suggest that the cost per life saved (fatality prevented) per year for residential fire sprinklers was $6.3 million,18 which is below the value of a statistical life, thus again suggesting their cost-effectiveness (as other benefits exist).  [The order of magnitude difference between the Ramsberg and Sjöberg (1997) study, and the current analysis, may be due to the value of a statistical life used.20]

    ·         Compared to other life-saving technologies, residential fire sprinklers appear more cost-effective than technologies such as sea walls protection against storm surge ($8.3 million per life saved), building fortification against earthquakes ($27.0 million), school buses staffed with adult monitors ($7.3 million), flammability standards for children's clothing (sizes 7–14; $22.5 million), and closely cost-effective to seat belts for passengers on school buses ($4.2 million) (Tengs et al., 1995).

    Let me know if you have any questions or want more information about this study.


    Copy of the report:


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