About codes and standards

from "A Reporter's Guide to Fire and the NFPA"

What is a code? What is a standard?
The earliest building code is thought to have been developed sometime between 1955 B.C. and 1913 B.C., during the reign of King Hammurabi of Babylon. The code didn’t specify how to build a building - but laid out the consequences of not building well. If a house fell and killed the owner or his child, then the builder, or his child, would be slain in retaliation.

Today’s codes are more elaborate, and less punitive. But like Hammurabi’s code, they express society’s will on a particular technical issue, specifying a desired outcome.

  • code is a model, a set of rules that knowledgeable people recommend for others to follow. It is not a law, but can be adopted into law.
  • standard tends be a more detailed elaboration, the nuts and bolts of meeting a code.

One way of looking at the differences between codes and standards is that a code tells you what you need to do, and a standards tells you how to do it. A code may say that a building must have a fire-alarm system. The standard will spell out what kind of system and how it must work. The NFPA has few codes; most of its documents are standards.See the full list of NFPA codes and standards.

The NFPA traces its very origin to the need for a standard. In the late 19th century, automatic sprinkler systems came into use as an effective way to put out fires. There were nine different pipe sizes. In 1895, a group of people involved with sprinkler manufacture and fire insurance got together to develop a uniform standard for the installation of sprinklers. The following year, as an outgrowth of that group, the NFPA was founded, and developing codes and standards remains one the association’s most important functions. NFPA was developed more than 300 codes and standards that are in use throughout the world.

Making codes and standards
The NFPA has developed a system for writing codes and standards that relies on the volunteer efforts of diverse groups of people and that is unique in its commitment to openness.

  • A 13-person Standards Council, appointed by the NFPA Board of Directors, oversees the process.
  • More than 225 Technical Committees report to the Council. Some 7,000 volunteers serve on these committees.
  • Each technical committee has up to 30 voting members with a balanced representation of affected people, such as consumers, enforcing authorities, manufacturers and researchers.
  • The technical committees recognize that the world can’t be made perfectly safe. They work toward a consensus that balances risks and costs, an agreement on how much society is willing to spend to reduce the risk of harm.
  • A minimum of two-thirds of the technical committee has to approve any change. (Some situations required a three-quarter majority.)
  • All codes and standards are revised every three to five years in a process that takes two years.

Learn all about process of producing an NFPA code or standard.

Fires that inspired changes
Tragic fires have led to major improvements in codes and standards. It started in 1913, when the NFPA Committee on Safety to Life was formed after four deadly fires in the previous decade. The committee developed the code now known as NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®  (previously the Building Exits Code). Updated many times over the years, this is code is the foundation of fire-safe building design, specifying measures that we now take for granted – for example, that there be fire escapes and accessible exits. These are the fires that led to the code’s creation:

  • Iroquois Theater (PDF, 408 KB), Chicago, IL, in 1903. 602 people killed
  • Rhoades Opera House, Boyertown, PA, in 1908. 170 people killed
  • Lakeview Grammar School (PDF, 262 KB), Collinwood, OH, in 1908. 175 people killed
  • Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, New York City, NY, in 1911. 146 people killed. This is the deadliest fire, to date, in a U.S. manufacturing facility. See a comprehensive review of this fire, presented by the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University, in cooperation with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!).

Other major fires and the changes they prompted:

  • The Cocoanut Grove nightclub, Boston, MA, in 1942. 492 people killed.Major changes in the rules for exits and other requirements for hotels and public buildings.
  • Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus tent (PDF, 623 KB), Hartford, CT, in 1944. 169 people killed.The creation of NFPA 102: Standard for Grandstands, Folding and Telescopic Seating Tents, and Membrane Structures.
  • Our Lady of Angels School, Chicago, IL, in 1958. 95 people killed. Stricter requirements for interior finish and exiting.
  • Hartford Hospital, Hartford, CT, in 1961. 16 people killed. 1963 edition of Building Exits Code extended the requirements for sprinklers to include more types of buildings.
  • The Beverly Hills Supper Club, Southgate, KY, in 1977. 165 people killed. Showed the need for fire alarms and public-address systems.
  • The Station Nightclub, West Warwick, RI, in 2003. 100 people killed. Requirement for fire sprinklers in every new club serving 50 or more, and every existing club serving 100 or more; additional safety inspections, mandatory crowd-management training and limits to standing-room only crowds.
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