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Compromising the Code

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By Warren Burns
Telgian Regional Practice Leader- Fire Protection Engineering

Have you ever sat in traffic wondering just what the traffic engineer was thinking when he/she designed the mess you are stuck in? Clearly, they never had to drive that stretch of road themselves. Equally clear is the fact that, while this configuration may have looked good in theory, in practice it is a horrible fail. Yet they remain, cast in stone (or concrete, or reinforced asphalt) as a monument to failure. I can visualize several examples within a mile radius of this office; I am willing to bet that everyone reading this can as well.

Do you ever stop to wonder if fire looks at our engineering solutions the same way? Do you think that a space with an extra .3 gallons per square foot of sprinkler water is a less attractive target? On the other hand, one with sprinkler heads spaced incorrectly will burn to the ground from the friction caused by the corduroy pants of the area supervisor walking through? Of course not. (Fire does not think. It is our only advantage over it as an adversary. If it could think, we would never stop it)

I will give engineering its full value as one of the three legs of the fire protection equation. However, engineering, without enforcement or education, will fall short of providing the protection a modern, evolved society should provide. Enforcement, in the form of requiring engineered systems to be installed, requiring correct installation and maintenance, and management of recognized hazards, is equally important. In addition, education concerning proper maintenance of installed systems, recognizing hazards that can lead to hostile fire propagation, and maintenance of all aspects of the fire and life safety package is the third leg of the process.

That is why we succeed as engineers and consultants. We provide engineered solutions, but also promote the enforcement and education process throughout the life cycle of a project. As we’ve seen many times in the past, sometimes the Authority Having Jurisdiction (the final authority determining what is allowed to be built, according to code, and what is not) will be resistant to accepting anything not expressly allowed by the code. Can we “sell” them on a concept that we know provides superior protection? First, do you really know that it is superior? Can you prove it? Remember, after we walk away from a project, and the building settles into daily use and abuse, it is the AHJ that needs to provide adequate fire and life safety for its occupants. He/she must believe that our proposed solution will do that. It is their job. I can tell you that as a former AHJ, a page full of complex math and waterflow graphs seldom influenced my decision. Fire, as a non-thinking organic process, has absolutely no regard for mathematics. It does, however, as a physics phenomenon have an obligation to follow the laws of physics.

An AHJ has many factors to consider, including fire department access, seismic/structural stability, available water supply, response time for adequate offensive fire attack… before they can sign off on a fire and life safety concept. Sometimes this will require us, the fire protection consultant, to think way out of the “box” for a solution. There is nearly always a compromise that will suit our client’s needs as well as the fire and life safety concerns of the jurisdiction. If it were as simple as black and white letters in a codebook, there would be no need for folk like us. If it were a matter of complex engineering for every building, engineering schools would be competing for street corners. Somewhere in between those extremes lies the truth, and we work tirelessly to reach that compromise for our clients, alongside the AHJ working for their clients. Ultimately, we are both looking for the same result.

Media and Interview Inquiries:
Susan McNeill
Telgian Holdings, Inc.
smcneill@telgian.com
480-621-5031

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