Unified Fire Codes Can Simplify Your Life, Part 1

For more than 60 years, the life-safety industry has relied on a variety of well-established codes and standards, published by organizations like the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA), International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO) and Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI).

These four code-making bodies worked independent of each other while collaborating on code issues that affected them all. For years, they existed side by side with the latter three within more of a regional environment than the first. All of this changed in 1994 when the International Fire Code Institute merged with BOCA, ICBO and SBCCI to create a the organization we now call the International Code Council (ICC).

NFPA and ICC began talks concerning the merging of the two fire codes, but by 1999 both organizations had come to an impasse in negotiations and the effort was finally dropped. Both ICC and NFPA fire codes continue to enjoy wide acceptance and often complement one another when both are adopted by a single jurisdiction.

In this month’s “Fire Side Chat,” you will learn how a single code solution is a win-win situation for the building trades, code compliancy officers and other interested parties within the fire protection field. You also will learn about ICC and NFPA’s new efforts at establishing a single set of all-encompassing fire codes that has the potential of making everyone’s lives a lot happier.

Why There Are Multiple Fire Codes
If you ever lived in a large municipality, you know the number of jurisdictions within a relatively small area can be quite high. Alarm companies in the Chicago market, for example, are subject to a variety of codes and standards even when the jurisdictions in question are adjacent to one another.

Fire codes also vary county-to-county and state-to-state. Hence, operating in such a hodgepodge environment becomes a headache for sales and technical people who are forced to work in each one of them.

“I would like to see a unified code because it would make it a lot easier for our firm to do business everywhere we work. Frankly, what we are able to do on one side of the street is often different than what we can do on the other,” says Kep Preble, co-owner of Fire & Security Systems Inc. in Arlington Heights, Ill. “This is simply wrong, for if it’s good on one side, it ought to be just as good on the other. I don’t care if we talk about city-to-city, county-to-county or state-to-state—fire code should be the same no matter where we go.”

According to Preble, there is a committee working on the creation or adoption of a unified fire code for Illinois. “It’s a consortium of fire chiefs, fire prevention officers, fire detection engineers, sprinkler companies and alarm companies, all trying to come up with a single fire code for the state of Illinois,” says Preble.

Part of this effort, according to Preble, involves the standardization of what installation companies must submit by way of blueprints. He mused that some jurisdictions will accept a blueprint on a napkin while others require the real deal, as they rightly should. All of this will be addressed in Preble’s all-inclusive fire code for the entire state of Illinois.

Nick Markowitz, owner of Markowitz Electric Protection in Verona, Pa., says it was nearly the best day of his life when the commonwealth of Pennsylvania made the decision to go with ICC’s unified code system, specifically International Fire Code (IFC).

Pennsylvania has adopted the following ICC codes on a statewide basis: the International Building Code; ICC Electrical Code; International Energy Conservation Code; International Existing Building Code; International Fuel Gas Code; International Mechanical Code; ICC Performance Code; International Plumbing Code; International Private Sewage Disposal Code*; International Property Maintenance Code*; International Residential Code; International Urban Wildland Interface Code; and International Zoning Code*.

“There are 144 individual jurisdictions in Allegany County,” says Markowitz. “Up until Pennsylvania adopted ICC, each one of these jurisdictions had its own fire code that I had to observe. That’s anywhere from no code to following BOCA code, which is now ICC. A unified code levels the playing field because everyone who works in Pennsylvania must install to the same set of rules.

“So everyone now has to bid a UL commercial panel, instead of whatever they feel like pricing. Not only that, but where there’s a unified code, the inspectors have to standardize their expectations. Those who inspect to ICC have an ICC card, which says they went to school to learn ICC fire code.”

Architects Endorse Unified Code
So important is a unified fire code that in January 2000, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) released a special report, assembled by a special codes task force, that unanimously endorsed the development of a unified fire code.

“The AIA has long advocated the development of a single set of codes for the United States, and established the task force following the breakdown of negotiations between the ICC and NFPA in 1999” (“Architects Demand a Single Code,” Jan. 5, 2000, NFPA News Archives).

Michael Minieri, Senior Security & Fire Consultant for Kroll, Schiff & Associates of Reston, Va., is a longtime code expert in the fire protection field who recently shared his thoughts on a unified fire code.

“I am personally in favor of a single code, one that cannot be legally amended at the state or local level,” he says. “There’s plenty of reasonably broad and discretionary language in the model codes to allow all parties applying them to agree on what needs to be done in those relatively rare instances not adequately anticipated by the code writers.”

Minieri adds that there are more war stories of so-called “interpretations” of code provisions that end up turning “black” into “white” that one could fill volumes. According to him, a single code could reduce the likelihood of this happening. In Minieri’s view of the NFPA/ICC situation, the breakdown that took place in those organizations’ 1999 negotiations had more to do with the proposed shift in code control (power) and revenue stream than anything else.

Next month, we will discuss specific NFPA and ICC codes.


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