Author(s): Meghan Housewright. Published on November 1, 2018.

Untangling the Tangle

State legislatures are micromanaging the code update process and putting citizens at risk. But one state may have a better way.

Last year, the Policy Institute looked at electrical code update practices in 16 states and found wide variations in the processes used. The people responsible for those processes identified lengthy economic analyses as key factors in slowing the adoption of up-to-date codes.

In 2012, Rhode Island’s legislature, concerned about the business climate, voted to require a detailed economic-impact analysis of new and existing state regulations. But this anti-red-tape measure has itself become an expensive tangle of micromanagement. According to data from the state, it has cost more than $200,000 to fulfill the analysis requirement for the 2017 National Electrical Code® and the 2018 I-Codes. Not only is the analysis unfinished—leaving the state on the 2014 NEC®—but it’s on top of a review already performed by expert volunteers to ensure new code provisions are in the best interests of the state’s citizens.

On that last point, two other prevailing themes emerged from our interviews last year: a deep respect for the professionals who volunteer their services to the review process, and a growing concern about the erosion of their independence as politicians seek to micromanage technical decisions about safety.

There’s a potential fix for the Ocean State. A bill introduced and passed in the Rhode Island House would exempt updates to the building and electrical codes from the analysis requirement, and would require all electrical work in the state to be performed to the latest version of the NEC—no more delays in implementing the latest advances in electrical safety. Unfortunately, the state’s general assembly has adjourned for the year, leaving this as unfinished business to be tackled in 2019.

Meanwhile, another New England state is contemplating a related bit of micromanagement that would slow or stall the code adoption process. In New Hampshire, legislators have passed a bill to form a “study commission” to review the state’s code update process and provide recommendations to the full legislature. During the hearing on the bill, legislators fretted that they lacked enough information to know whether the “new codes” were indeed needed and whether they were cost effective. There was confusion over whether “hundreds of pages” of referenced standards were actually a burdensome pile of new regulations the legislature couldn’t possibly review.

These issues exist around the country and present challenges to the adoption of the latest safety codes. While insights may be gained from reviewing procedures, any review must begin with a clear understanding of the critical role codes and standards play in protecting public safety. There needs to be an understanding that as the world changes, codes must keep up to reflect new knowledge, evolving risks, and advances in technology. New Hampshire, for example, uses a fire code that is nearly 10 years old and that does not reflect provisions added to the most recent code that help jurisdictions ensure fire safety around food trucks, new energy storage systems, and more, making it less safe for citizens and firefighters. Furthermore, any review must understand the context for those “hundreds of pages” of referenced standards, their often narrow application, and the limited regulatory burden they impose—facts well understood by the technical professionals New Hampshire once entrusted to oversee code incorporation, before the legislature got involved.

The experts who lend their time and experience to help analyze all aspects, including costs, of a code update are a valuable resource. Rhode Island appears prepared to recognize that, and to eliminate the expensive and unnecessary legislative overlap. My hope is that once it does, it can serve as an example to its New England cousin—and any other state—on how to review a code update process and actually improve it.

MEGHAN HOUSEWRIGHT is director of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler