Published on July 1, 2016.

Time for the Life Safety Code to embrace fall prevention?

I recently read “Lodging’s annus horribilus,” your “Looking Back” feature in the May/June issue, about the hotel fires of 1946 and their aftermath. As bad as those fires were, and as bad as fires continue to be, their impact pales compared to the more than 30,000 annual deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that result from unintentional falls. The life safety problem du jour is not fires, but rather falls that occur on unsafe built stairs and ramps and abrupt elevation changes within buildings.

When I was studying fire protection engineering in the 1960s, fire deaths in the United States were 12,000 per year, with a population of just over 140 million. Fire deaths today are 3,000 compared to a population of 325 million. NFPA has mostly solved the “fixable” aspects of the fire problem. Data suggests many fire deaths involve risky behavior like smoking in bed or drug use, and no life safety measures or fire codes will be able to fully address these types of human behavior. The U.S. fire death rate no longer ranks in the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s top 20 causes of accidental death. But falls do.

I am a life member of NFPA with a Ph.D. in safety engineering. I have fought and investigated countless fires, and I’ve also investigated more than 1,000 falls. NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, is designed for life safety per se, not just fire safety. NFPA should consider re-focusing the Life Safety Code to emphasize fall prevention via the code’s intent and scope related to means of ingress and walkway hazards inside buildings. It should do this rather than grandfathering small, abrupt changes in elevation and allowing existing steps to remain in place without a handrail. In the 1970s, NFPA stated that grandfathering was not a reason to allow unsafe conditions to continue, and, by example, smoke detectors were retrofitted as affordable, effective solutions to address a real hazard. Handrails are cheap, too, but are not retrofitted similarly to address a larger existing life safety hazard.

In fact, my observation is that many FPEs and architects today evidently have no concept of how to handle change of elevations within a building. When I’m asked to provide my professional opinion in court, I am shocked at how many licensed engineers and architects testify wrongly on this topic. Many of us are going to die or be crippled as a result of falls in sprinklered healthcare facilities because, once we pass age 65, falls become epidemic. I have offered to present on fall-related life safety at prominent safety conferences, only to be bumped year after year by toothless topics that have no relationship to life safety. “Fire” has four letters, but “fall” is apparently a four-letter word given its avoidance by much of the life safety community.

More than 30,000 unintentional fall fatalities each year, plus billions of dollars in healthcare costs due to falls, surely must be enough to warrant an embrace of fall prevention in the Life Safety Code. I believe that is the annus horribilus for fall prevention year after year, and the Life Safety Code could be the fix.

Gregory A. Harrison, Ph.D., P.E. Fire protection, civil, environmental, and safety engineer Fellow, American College of Forensic Examiners Gaithersburg, Maryland

Ron Coté, P.E., lead engineer for life safety at NFPA, responds:

The First Draft Report that will lead to the 2018 edition of NFPA 101 includes a First Revision adding a new provision within the document’s scope:

“1.1.6. Injuries from Falls. The Code addresses reducing injury to occupants from falls.”

The life safety technical committees have taken on the disproportionately significant problem of falls in bathtubs and showers as their current attack on the falls problem. For background, see my “In Compliance” article from the November/December 2015 issue of NFPA Journal where I addressed changes proposed for the 2018 edition for tub and shower grab bars.

The writer is encouraged to study the proposed changes, including anything newly developed by the technical committees at their June and July Second Draft meetings that will be reported in the Second Draft Report early next year. Further, the writer is encouraged to submit Public Input for any needed changes for a future edition of NFPA 101 after the 2018 edition is published. The code is improved by the active participation of the public in the revision process that begins with Public Inputs.