An Icon Worth Preserving
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2012
This edition of NFPA Journal includes two stories about iconic American locations whose recent renovations have received a great deal of public attention. Even so, the real importance of those changes is little understood by the public, or by the media that have reported on them.
Fenway Park and the Statue of Liberty are two of the most popular tourist attractions in America, but both were built at a time when our understanding of life safety issues was far less developed than it is today. Both have been significantly spruced up, but along with the beautification have come long-overdue improvements that will make them far safer for the millions of visitors they welcome every year.
The fact of the matter is that most people do not pay much attention to the safety features in the buildings where they live, work, or seek entertainment. A friend of mine who is a strong NFPA advocate told me about a recent visit he made to his longtime doctor who had just moved into a new office. When the doctor asked how he liked the new office, my friend said it looked nice, but then asked the doctor why he didn’t have fire sprinklers installed as part of the renovation. The doctor looked up at the drop ceiling and said, “I thought I had sprinklers.”
People assume that if they visit a famous location, buy a house, or lease a property for a business, then the building must be safe. But they should make that assumption only if the jurisdiction in which the building is located has adopted the right code and is committed to enforcing that code. At NFPA we know that that is not always the case. Some jurisdictions are only too happy to ride with outdated codes or neglect aggressive enforcement. When budgets get cut in a tough economy, interests that can make money by skirting reasonable code provisions take advantage.
We are seeing this troubling trend in many different guises. We certainly see it in the struggle over residential sprinklers and the consensus of both NFPA and the International Code Council processes that sprinklers should be included in all new construction of one- and two-family homes. Homebuilders argue, with no evidence, that the simple inclusion of sprinklers will make houses unaffordable for middle-income people, even when the experience of jurisdictions that have adopted sprinkler provisions demonstrates conclusively that housing costs are not substantially different where sprinklers are required. Some states are talking about skipping a whole cycle of code revisions to save money, denying their citizens the benefit of important advancements and the use of improved technology that can save lives and property. Jurisdictions are merging fire and building code enforcement, claiming they’re just trying to make things more efficient, when in fact what they’re doing is scaling back their commitment to code enforcement.
We have to make people more aware of how codes protect their safety, and we have to raise the visibility of a whole system of code development, adoption, and enforcement that has made our buildings the safest in the world. The stories about Fenway Park and the Statue of Liberty, two classically American locations, illustrate how lucky we are to have in place a system to protect public safety that has stood the test of time. Our commitment to safety through strong codes is another American icon that we have to work to preserve.