Author(s): Ashley Smith. Published on May 2, 2016.

Large Load

A new NFPA committee is exploring the creation of codes and standards for buildings and other facilities with high occupancy loads, including stadiums, hotels, and concert venues

BY ASHLEY SMITH

IN AN EMERGENCY, whether it’s a fire, flood, earthquake, or act of terrorism, buildings with a large number of occupants can present a far more difficult set of safety challenges than smaller structures. Evacuating some 257,000 people from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for example—the public facility with the largest occupant capacity in the United States—is typically much more involved than ushering a fraction of that number out of a much smaller occupancy such as a restaurant, retail store, or office. With large facilities, the logistics can be exponentially more complex, the risks multiplied along with the number of people.

Realizing that, NFPA has created the Building Fire and Life Safety Directors Committee, a new technical committee formed to develop codes or standards for buildings with occupant loads of 500 or more. The new committee currently has about 20 members, including fire service professionals, public safety consultants, and representatives from industries as varied as higher education, pharmaceuticals, oil, and insurance. The goal is to expand the committee to 30 members. Visit the NFPA website for more information on the new committee and to apply to become a member.

The committee will establish minimum requirements for emergency action plans, and it will outline the skills and competencies that those in charge of emergencies—often called building fire and life safety directors, or simply life safety directors—should possess. In the wake of disasters like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and Hurricane Sandy, many facility owners and operators are increasingly hiring life safety directors to oversee disaster planning and logistics, and to anticipate the worst.

NFPA Conference Session
NFPA Conference & Expo, Las Vegas, June 13-16, 2016

Interactive Overview of NFPA’s New Technical Committee on Building Fire and Life Safety Directors
Tuesday, June 14, 3:30–5:00 p.m.

Greg Granados, Pacific Gas and Electric Company; Timothy Costello, JENSEN HUGHES; Jack Murphy, JJM & Associates; Robert James, UL

The new committee has an enormous task in front of it, said Allan Fraser, a senior building code specialist at NFPA and staff liaison to the committee. Fraser estimates there could be 100,000–200,000 facilities in the United States with capacities of 500 or more occupants. In addition to motor speedways, which make up the top 15 venues with the highest occupant capacities, there are football and baseball stadiums, prisons, hospitals, colleges, businesses, theaters, concert venues, and hotels, among many others. “The scope is huge,” Fraser said. “This is a massive project that will require a mix of new provisions as well as coordination with existing programs and plans.” The committee’s first task is outlining the skills and qualifications life safety directors should have, and a draft of those skills is likely to be completed in the next year, Fraser said. But developing a complete set of codes or standards that can be applied nationwide and beyond could take five to 10 years, he said.

Joseph Cocciardi, founder of the safety and health consulting firm Cocciardi and Associates, Inc., first proposed developing requirements for fire and life safety directors. Cocciardi, who has spent more than 35 years in the safety field and chairs NFPA’s Technical Committee on Loss Prevention Procedures and Practices, spoke with NFPA Journal about what the Building Fire and Life Safety Directors Committee hopes to accomplish.

Why did the committee decide it was important to set national standards for emergency action plans and life safety directors?

Folks are starting to set standards out in the field. There are a variety of locations that have already done this on the municipal level. In New York City, for example, all public buildings with building populations of more than 100 must have a fire safety director on site. They have to take a 20-hour training course and pass a test. Jersey City, Chicago, and Los Angeles have similar requirements. When we saw this, we realized this is not an anomaly. This is happening in the real world.

If standards are already being developed on the local level, why are national standards needed, too?

Many cities and towns still do not have these standards—most don’t, I would say. If we can publish a national standard based on the best practices and what is working very well for cities and towns already, symbiotically that is better for everyone in the country. Municipalities that do not have standards will be able to use them. We also wanted to close a loophole in the current national codes between the responsibilities of firefighters and the responsibilities of security guards, and that’s where a life safety director’s work falls.

Are you modeling your work after cities or towns that have set these standards for themselves, or are you starting from scratch?

It’s kind of 50/50. We are looking at what New York City has done because this is a very detailed part of the city’s regulations—New York is a pioneer, I guess. But once the committee started to discuss creating codes and standards, we realized so many other groups had a vested interest in this and their opinions needed to be included. Our committee members come from a very diverse array of industries, organizations, and agencies, and we want to consider their thoughts and opinions.

From a general safety perspective, can you describe what some of the challenges are in buildings with 500 or more occupants?

Buildings with larger populations by definition have intricacies to them that can make life safety more complex. There are typically more fire and other safety protection systems, thus the need for a more knowledgeable person who’s in charge of safety and routine activities. Part of it is the size of the structures themselves, which are like mini cities now. It takes longer to evacuate the building. And when I say larger buildings, I’m not just talking about high-rises, but buildings like arenas or underground malls.

Why is 500 the magic number? How did NFPA decide on that number as the threshold for where the proposed standards would apply?

That seemed to be the size where facilities would or should have some sort of life safety director in place—not necessarily a full-time employee, but someone with major responsibilities to develop, implement, and maintain the plan.

Have life safety directors existed for a long time, or is the position relatively new in the wake of recent disasters?

I think the responsibilities have been around forever. However, over the last 20 years in particular, some of the larger disasters have brought safety issues to the forefront. There have been large, fatal hotel fires, for example, where losses could have been prevented if life safety issues had been addressed. We’re also seeing buildings that are bigger and higher and more complex. An ordinary person may not be able to manage their own safety in an emergency without some level of guidance or action plan. The life safety director is the person who can make sure that the necessary guidance is present and, if needed, provide assistance.

In your opinion, what type of experience makes someone ideal to work as a life safety director?

First, they need experience in the physical features of fire and life safety for their building. That’s not necessarily an engineer, but someone who has technical expertise. In the old days, the building maintenance supervisor would take care of the sprinkler system and make sure the fire pumps were working properly. However, the newest systems are so complex that you need specialized training. The example I gave the committee was that I used to change the oil all the time on my car when I was a kid, but on new cars I can’t even figure out where the oil filter is.

What other qualifications or experience should they have?

They need behavioral skills or training to understand how to interact with people in a crisis. They’re dealing with diverse populations, and there may be safety barriers to address such as language barriers or disabilities. The third thing, obviously, is that they need to understand emergency response activities and how facilities need to interact with both fire brigades and on-site security in the event of an emergency.

You’re still looking for additional committee members. What type of person would you urge to get involved?

I would suggest that folks who fall into those interest areas between fire suppression and security would be very well-suited to fit in with what’s happening on this committee. There are a wide variety of people who could fill those needs. We would also encourage representatives from facilities that have larger populations, such as sports arenas and underground malls, to participate in the committee’s activities.

ASHLEY SMITH is a staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: AP World Wide