As a brand new fire protection system designer (almost 40 years ago), I was furnished with several NFPA standards. These standards provided the “rules” for designing and installing sprinkler systems, fire pumps, and underground piping systems. I did not know anything about the creation or publishing of the documents. I assumed some really smart and experienced people sat down and came up with the right way to design and install the systems each standard addressed. I never questioned any of the requirements. Instead, I focused on following the rules, so that the systems I designed were acceptable to those in authority. As my career progressed, I discovered that my ideas on how the standards were developed were only partially correct. Many smart people were definitely involved in the process, but it was much more complicated, subjective and political than I had imagined. I am not implying that the system is bad or tainted; I am simply stating that as we understand how fire safety codes and standards are created and adopted, we can better apply them to our facilities and systems.
What is the difference between fire safety codes and standards?
One question often asked is, “What is the difference between fire safety codes and standards?” In simple terms, codes tell us when and what must be done. Standards tell us how to do it. For example, the building code may state that a particular type of building must be protected with an automatic sprinkler system. It further instructs that the system must be installed in accordance with NFPA 13 The Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems. NFPA 13 provides the requirements for how the sprinkler system is designed and installed. NFPA 13 does not tell a building owner that the structure must be protected with sprinklers. That is the role of the code.
When a jurisdiction adopts a code, the code becomes law, and the referenced standards are also incorporated into the law. As we know, codes and standards mandated for the construction, operation and maintenance of a building and its systems have an economic impact on the owner of the facility, the manufacturers of the materials and equipment used and the service providers who construct and maintain the facility. Therefore, each of these stakeholders has an interest in how the codes and standards are developed and adopted.
Two organizations develop the majority of codes and standards used in the United States. They are the International Code Council (ICC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The codes and standards published by these two entities are also utilized globally, although in most cases are not formally adopted into law. The process used by ICC and NFPA in developing codes and standards are similar in some ways, but do have notable exceptions. The biggest difference in their respective processes is how new documents or changes to existing documents are made. With the ICC, the various stakeholders (owners, users, enforcers, contractors, etc.) can serve on the committees that propose changes to existing documents, but the vote for the final content is restricted only to enforcers (Authorities Having Jurisdiction). In the NFPA process, however, the technical committees over each document are balanced between stakeholders, and each stakeholder has a vote in the adoption of any proposed revisions.
Most of those involved in the development of fire safety codes and standards find the NFPA process to be the more democratic of the two due to the required balance between stakeholders. One of the principle objectives in the application of codes and standards is to maintain “reasonableness.” In the end, whether a requirement is deemed reasonable or not, is based upon its economic impact on a stakeholder compared to the decreased risk or increased safety it provides. The NFPA process provides the various stakeholders a more robust method of managing the reasonableness of a requirement than that of the ICC, where the final decision is left in the hands of a single stakeholder group (enforcers). This is not meant to imply that the ICC codes are deficient or overly onerous. It simply means that the NFPA process is more centered on all stakeholder needs or wants.
What does this mean for those of us who are governed and must submit to the requirements of the codes and standards? We need to do everything we can to ensure that the requirements are reasonable. It is always easier to spend someone else’s money, rather than our own. If we do not monitor and participate in the codes and standards making process, we can easily end up with requirements that have a profound economic impact, without making much difference in the level of risk to which we are exposed.
Telgian Engineering & Consulting (TEC) has representation on many technical committees that oversee the standards for fire, life safety and property protection. In most cases, we serve as special experts, but there are a significant number of committees where we represent the users (property owners) of the standards. Regardless of our stakeholder designation on the committees, we always focus on the “reasonableness” factor governing codes and standards. Our involvement also permits us to understand the intent of the requirements and how to apply the permissible equivalencies in lieu of the specified rule.
Many of our customers provide us with problems or challenges regarding their compliance with fire safety codes and standards. We work with them to find a solution that can be incorporated into the applicable document to ensure the most efficient means of compliance and reduction of risk. Your job is to keep us informed of the challenges that you are facing, or of code requirements that do not serve your needs (or in many cases, may restrict your ability of operate efficiently). Do not shrink from challenging the status quo. It may take time and hard work, but it can be done. We have demonstrated this repeatedly the past 35 years.
Remember — codes and standards are laws and laws can be changed to ensure that we, as the constituents, are served effectively and efficiently.
About the Author
Russ Leavitt is the Executive Chairman of Telgian Holdings. With over 38 years of experience, he holds a Level IV certification from NICET in Fire Sprinkler Layout and Certified Fire Protection Specialist (CFPS) designation. He is a Board Member and 2nd Vice-Chair of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and is the chair of the NFPA 13 Sprinkler System Discharge Criteria technical committee. He also serves on the NFPA 13 Installation committee as well as the NFPA 3, NFPA 4 and NFPA 25 technical committees. Russ conducts seminars internationally on a variety of fire and life safety related subjects and has authored a number of articles and training materials.
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