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.”