The quintessential code
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2008
By Lisa Nadile
When Wisconsin needed more stringent standards and more fire - safety elements in the built environment, the fire service looked to NFPA 1, Uniform Fire Code™, says Fire Chief Gregg Cleveland of the La Crosse Fire Department.
“[Prior to our adoption of NFPA 1 in 2003,] Wisconsin really had no fire code," he says. Before the state adopted the 2006 edition of NFPA 1 in March, the fire service knew it would need to work carefully with the building officials.
“There was the whole myth of compatibility with the International [Building Code]. NFPA 1 has proven in Wisconsin and other states that it can be used with any building code, because it focuses on the use of buildings. It focuses on the maintenance of buildings and processes, which the building code doesn’t address," says Chief Cleveland.
To get the most from NFPA 1, take advantage of the support resources available, he says.
“The NFPA 1 handbook really provides fire safety professionals with guidelines [or background] to the code. When ... applying a fire code to businesses in our communities, one of the things we struggle most with is consistency of application," Chief Cleveland says.
“To me, one of the strengths of NFPA as an organization is that they have the support data... so that we can understand what the technical committees meant in order to apply a particular code section to a problem," he says.
That support grows even more critical as NFPA 1 responds to a more complex building environment.
“As the world gets more complicated, our code and our approach to fire safety need to become [more sophisticated], and we need to have these codes be as specifi c as possible," the chief says.
One example he mentions is NFPA 1’s retroactive requirement for sprinklers in high-rise buildings. NFPA 1 is the only code with this requirement, confirms Martha Curtis, a senior fire service specialist for NFPA and the staff liaison to the NFPA 1 Technical Committee.
Developed after NFPA 1, Fire Protection Code, was merged with the Western Fire Chiefs Association’s 2000 edition of the Uniform Fire Code, and written by members of the fire service and leading national experts in fire protection engineering, NFPA 1 is fast becoming an effective tool for managing developmental growth, says Curtis.
“The document is a gateway to all other NFPA standards like [NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems]. It’s written in an interactive way, and it works with the others. NFPA is a good toolbox for my inspectors. They can walk out of the office with it and from that point on, if they need additional information, they know where to get it," says Robert Fash, deputy fire marshal of Las Vegas Fire & Rescue, who is also on the NFPA 1 Technical Committee. Las Vegas adopted NFPA 1 in 2004.
As NFPA 1 makes its way to the World Safety Conference & Exposition®, and then to the Standards Council as part of the 2008 code revision cycle, how it evolves can seem daunting. With nearly 300 NFPA codes and standards, how does the technical committee decide what information to extract and what to reference?
“What you have to do is look at if from the inspector’s point of view," says Wayne Moore, P.E., of Hughes Associates, Inc. and an NFPA 1 Technical Committee member. “Because much of every code and standard that NFPA develops is for the whole process of the building installation, what the fire inspector needs from an NFPA 1point of view is the maintenance of those systems and what needs to be looked at in terms of [performance]. Are these systems working like they were supposed to when they were first installed?"
“We look at the other codes and standards and ask, what part of them do we need to keep the fire inspector ‘on his game’? For example, if I know a system was installed according to NFPA 72®, [National Fire Alarm Code®], what do I need to know to make sure that system continues to work? There are pieces of NFPA 72 that help them to do that," Moore says. Those pieces are extracted and placed into NFPA 1.
“It focuses the fire inspector’s attention on what the building code doesn’t take into account: the building’s contents. People change how a building is used, especially under business working conditions. Fire inspectors are better prepared to deal with the building because they know the contents, the occupancy loading, and the people flow," says Curtis. “The code is a tool for working with a building owner in an inclusive way. Not only can a fire inspector show the owners when they are extending beyond the bounds of safety, but he can warn them before they go too far beyond safe limits and have to spend money to correct the oversights that they created."
“The fire inspectors’ job is probably the hardest job in the business because they are supposed to know everything in the codes that affects a building after it is occupied. They have got to make sure a building stays safe," says Moore.
The push on NFPA 1 the last couple of cycles has been to try to get the best information at the fingertips of the fire inspectors, so that when they run into a problem, whether it be occupancy-based or hazardous materials-related, there will be enough information in the code that will allow them to do their jobs and be vigilant about public safety, he says.
The 2009 changes
Far from complete, the changes described here reflect the vast scope of NFPA 1. In this new edition, all available extracted text has been brought up to date with the latest version of the respective parent document and information has been reorganized to make related requirements easier to find.
Certain topics are given new attention because of the growth of certain industries and occupancies. For example, there will be broad changes to NFPA 1’s requirements for hazardous materials, says Curtis.
“The hazmat template and additional changes are important because communities have created more mixed-use occupancies that store hazardous materials, such as big box stores or public swimming facilities in which quantities of cleaning chemicals are stored. Prior to the 2003 edition, we used mercantile storage or industrial codes and standards,"
There are also new requirements for nontraditional places of assembly, such as tents, and temporary special amusement occupancies, such as haunted-house trailers, while other requirements keep the public safe as they use open flames in everything from candles to grills. A new Chapter 35 references NFPA 150, Fire and Life Safety in Animal Housing Facilities, to protect animals and the people who care for and work with them.
Perhaps the most significant change expected in the 2009 edition focuses on fire service communications in buildings.
Bidirectional radio amplification system
NFPA 1 will now contain requirements for in-building radio communications systems based on bidirectional amplifiers used for fire department
communications in buildings such as big 55box stores, covered malls, and public schools. Placed in Annex O, these requirements will help firefighters determine the effectiveness of their signals by describing how the fire department should evaluate the system, what expertise is needed, and what frequencies are necessary, at least on the radio system. Annex O gives the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) the ability to evaluate the conditions in a structure and evaluate what is required to meet the minimum performance standards.
“This issue is addressed in the code as a result of the recommendations made by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) after 9/11 on dealing with high-rises and the difficulties of radio interoperability. This was something significant, especially for firefighter safety," says Fash.
To address issues of overloading and building interference, buildings are now required to have radio reception throughout.
“It doesn’t have to be 100 percent, but it does have to be enough that a firefighter can speak to the incident commander from any floor of the building," he says.
Building marking system
Firefighter safety building marking systems use a graphic sign displayed on a building to communicate to first-responding firefighters significant information about the building, such as hazardous contents, construction details, and the protection features present.
“When they show up on scene, they have a basic understanding of some of the risks involved in going ahead and fighting a fire in that structure. It’s an expansion of the efforts for truss-marking systems, where responding firefighters know they’ve got a key on the outside of the building indicating there is a lightweight truss roof structure present, and that they should be aware of it because a significant fire in that truss structure may cause a collapse in the building,"
says Anthony Apfelbeck, a city building official in Altamonte Springs, Florida, and a member of the NFPA 1 Technical Committee.
The firefighter safety building marking system is especially valuable to municipalities and counties that do not have an extensive fire planning system. It is also valuable for mutual-aid and first-response agreements. Units from other jurisdictions may be completely unfamiliar with the building they are responding to and without access to pre-fire planning information.
“It’s a commitment on the part of the building’s owner in cooperation with the fire department to ensure that the information put on that sign on the front of the building is updated and is kept accurate, because having wrong information is worse than having no information. It’s going to be up to the authority having jurisdiction to be progressive about pre-fire planning and to ensure that firefighters have the correct information," Apfelbeck says.
Visual inspections of assembly occupancies and high-rises
Once every five years, written reports analyzing visual inspections of fire-resistance-rated assembly occupancies and the integrity of high-rise buildings must be submitted to the AHJ.
“This comes out of the recommendations made in the NIST report on the World Trade Center. Maintaining the fire-resistance rating of structural members and ensuring that the integrity has been maintained for the life of the building is important," says Apfelbeck.
If renovation work occurs in a building that might not have a permit or if a building material starts to deteriorate—for example, the spray-on insulation starts to come off a structural member — it can absolutely affect the fire-resistance rating of those members and affect the passive fire protection of that structure, he says.
Fire flow requirements
Formerly in Annex H, the requirements for fire flow, which NFPA 1 defines as the rate of a water supply available for firefighting measured at 20 psi (137.9 kPa) residual pressure, are now located in Chapter 18. According to Apfelbeck, this move answers the need for consistency among jurisdictions, especially those that are mini-maxi.
“For example, when a civil engineer designs something in our city now, as opposed to something in South Florida, they should be able to use the 2009 edition of the NFPA 1 and know what fire flow is [appropriate for the use of that building]," Apfelbeck says.
“It’s a customer service issue. It’s looking at what our customers need and giving them the correct information so they’re not guessing. Fire flow, site plan review, and fire apparatus access have always been somewhat nebulous because every site is different," he says.
Fire department service delivery concurrency evaluation
Adding a fire department service delivery concurrency evaluation to NFPA 1, as Annex P, will allow the AHJ and developers to evaluate the financial impact a new housing development project will have on the fire department. When a development adds a large number of dwellings to a jurisdiction, the fire service has to ask if the tax revenue and resources provided by that new construction will fund the necessary fire department expansion.
This new annex allows the AHJ to require a test to show the developer how the new project will affect levels of service. The AHJ can then make mitigation recommendations and specify what must be in place for the fire service by a certain time, based on the development’s scope.
“It talks about the documentation necessary, the source of data, a review by the AHJ, and also says that the AHJ can require an independent review. If you are a small volunteer department, you may not have the resources, but if this development is going to have a huge impact, you may need to hire an independent third party to [review the project for] you," says Apfelbeck.
Fire-safe indoor children’s playgrounds and other changes
The new edition of NFPA 1 also addresses the construction materials used in indoor children’s playgrounds, such as those found at many fast-food restaurants.
“If indoor playground structures are added to certain occupancies, they have to meet certain flame-proof requirements. This change makes sure the flame spread is kept low and smoke generation is kept to a minimum," says Robert Fash of Las Vegas.
From the fire service perspective, knowing where to go in the code when regulating these activities has been difficult, he says.
The 2009 edition of the code also discusses where portable generators should be fueled, used, and stored, providing requirements for regulating them in terms of carbon monoxide exposure and risks of fire from unsafe placement. In addition, the code addresses liability, stating in Chapter 1 that, where there is no recognizable malicious damage to a property, the fire service should be free of liability.
With this important update, the 2009 edition of NFPA 1 gives fire inspectors and building owners access to a broad vista of technical expertise, the knowledge of leading experts from across hundreds of industries in one carefully organized volume. For Fire Chief Ronald Farr of Kalamazoo Township Fire Department in Michigan and the chair of the NFPA 1 Technical Committee, the comprehensive nature of the document is the key to its usefulness.
“A lot of states are taking a look at the code itself, identifying the usefulness of the document. It’s a comprehensive tool that assists people in meeting enforcement needs for all occupancies within a given jurisdiction," says Chief Farr.
NFPA 1 gives the fire inspector a practical and useful book for one very big job, a book backed by the empirical knowledge and decades of experience of the NFPA members who participated in the code’s development, he says.
Lisa Nadile is associate editor of NFPA Journal.