Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2020.

Safety Worldwide

With representation from NFPA, a global coalition creates universal building fire safety principles that can be applied anywhere in the world


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The strength, or even presence, of codes and standards governing building fire safety is inconsistent around the world. Generally, in more developed countries like the United States, private organizations including NFPA and the International Code Council (ICC) drive the development of robust codes. In other countries, though, building codes of any kind are more or less nonexistent. According to research from the World Bank Group, a staggering 80 percent of the built environment in developing nations is constructed with no official land-use or safety regulations.

With such a wide spectrum of regulatory cultures, not to mention differences in construction terminology, methods, and materials, is it possible to create a list of best practices for creating fire-safe buildings that can be applied anywhere in the world?

That was the central question recently addressed by members of the International Fire Safety Standards (IFSS) Coalition, a consortium of representatives from more than 50 construction and building safety organizations around the world, including NFPA. The answer, in short, was “yes”—in January, an IFSS committee released a first draft of its list of universally applicable global fire safety principles. A final version of the document is expected to be released this summer.

Birgitte Messerschmidt, director of the Applied Research division at NFPA and a member of the 24-person committee that hammered out the list, said the group took a novel approach to framing the problem: View the world without borders and all of its people as a single group, then pretend you’re an extraterrestrial.

“We said, ‘If I were an alien landing on Earth and I had to create a fire-safe building, what would I need to know?’” said Messerschmidt. “It sounds funny, but that’s what we had to do as a group of building fire safety experts: Try to imagine we know nothing.”

Gary Strong, chair of the IFSS Coalition and global buildings standards director at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) in the United Kingdom, said the coalition represents a rare opportunity to look at global fire safety best practices and incorporate that knowledge into approaches that can hopefully improve building safety worldwide. “Fire knows no geographical or political boundaries,” Strong said. “A fire is a fire no matter what country it occurs in, so why should there be a difference in the way we design, construct, and manage infrastructure?”

‘Back to Basics’

The creation of the IFSS Coalition dates back to the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72 people in London in June 2017. Poor building fire safety practices, including the use of combustible exterior wall assemblies and a lack of automatic fire sprinklers, contributed to the severity of the blaze, which was the deadliest in modern British history. (For more on the aftermath of the Grenfell fire, see “Data Void.”) The incident sent shockwaves through the global fire safety community. It also prompted several organizations in the UK, including RICS, to consider formulating a list of global fire safety principles that could help prevent large-scale tragedies like Grenfell, as well as the day-to-day fires that claim thousands of lives each year.

While there are no comprehensive statistics on global fire deaths and injuries, the data that can be pieced together suggests upwards of 100,000 people die in fires each year. The World Health Organization, for example, estimates that about 180,000 people die each year from burns. That number includes nonfire-related burns, but it also excludes smoke inhalation deaths.

In the months following the Grenfell fire, RICS and the other UK organizations such as the Institution of Fire Engineers and the Royal Institute of British Architects studied what the building fire safety standards looked like in other countries. “What we realized very quickly was there’s such a massive variance in fire safety standards around the world,” Strong said. “In some countries, particularly low- and middle-income countries, there are no fire safety standards at all, and it was clear there’s a need for something like the IFSS Coalition.” The organizations then spent about a year recruiting organizations from outside the UK, including NFPA, and the IFSS Coalition officially launched in July 2018, at the United Nations office in Geneva, Switzerland.

Nearly two years later, Strong is proud of the work the group has accomplished. “We’re acting in the public interest, which is really, really important,” he said. “We’re trying to bring fire safety more into the public conscience worldwide.”

DEVELOPING CHALLENGE  Cities like Lagos, Nigeria, pictured here, can include a wide variety of structures that may not be subject to consistent building codes and regulations—a common problem in developing nations in Africa and throughout the world. (Getty Images)

For NFPA, the opportunity to be involved with the project has been an affirmation of its own mission. In addition to Messerschmidt serving on the coalition’s Standards Setting Committee, Chris Dubay, vice president of engineering at NFPA, represents the association on the coalition itself. “As the IFSS Coalition accomplishes what it has set out to, the NFPA mission gets furthered as well, the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem becomes stronger in areas around the world, and we collectively raise the bar of fire and life safety globally,” Dubay said. “Additionally, NFPA has the codes and standards to support the goals of these fire safety principles that the coalition’s committee has written.”

The coalition’s Standards Setting Committee released the first draft of its list of global fire safety principles on January 23. The 49-page document, titled “International Fire Safety Standards: Common Principles,” sticks to generic terms and avoids citing specific codes and standards from organizations like NFPA or the ICC. “The Common Principles are relevant to all real estate classes and all regions and nations regardless of the differing political, economic, social, technological, legal, or environmental differences between jurisdictions,” the document reads. Those principles, it continues, are prevention, detection and communication, occupant protection, containment, and extinguishment.

Public input on the first draft of principles ranged from “very positive” to “I don’t quite get this,” according to Messerschmidt. “Some people were saying, ‘We have codes and standards in my country already, and they work well, so why do we need a document like this?’” she said.

In fact, Messerschmidt added, there are many circumstances where such a document would be useful: government officials in developing nations in search of a starting point to create a regulatory framework; individuals who own properties in multiple countries; facility owners and managers in developed nations who simply want to determine if they’re addressing the right issues in the right ways. “It can be a way of going back to basics,” she said.

Read more about the IFSS Coalition and its list of building fire safety principles at

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NPFA Journal. Top photograph: Getty Images