Are Our Buildings Safe?

Recent congressional inquiries into the adequacy of model building and fire codes are a step in the right direction.

THE federal government finally has involved itself seriously in fire protection--a decidedly local responsibility from the days when Ben Franklin organized the first volunteer fire department. In the days since September 11, 2001:

  • Congress has, for the first time, authorized billions of dollars to help local fire departments purchase apparatus and equipment.
  • The Department of Homeland Security has regarded fire prevention as a cornerstone of its efforts, and the Department of Transportation has encouraged firefighters to become actively involved in pipeline safety and the development of hydrogen fuel cell technologies.
  • The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has recalled hundreds of thousands of potentially defective sprinkler heads, and is now--after a decade of inaction--seriously considering new fire safety standards for upholstered furniture, mattress and bedding. Tired of waiting for the commission to act, Congress may set standards for these and other products. The American Home Fire Safety Act (S. 1798) will get serious attention by both chambers of Congress.
  • The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms opened its new fire sciences laboratory, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) continues to contribute significantly to our understanding of the destructive forces of fire.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency has turned to firefighters to help resolve controversies with flame-retardant chemicals and air emissions from small engines.

But Are We Safe?
But of all of the ways in which Washington is looking at fire protection, firefighters should most welcome recent Senate inquiries into the adequacy of the model building and fire codes. Law enforcement, food and drug safety, hazardous materials, air and water quality, aviation, public and private transportation--virtually all aspects of public safety--are regulated by government authorities. Building safety is the one exception. Are our buildings safe? At least two prominent senators are asking questions that deserve answers.

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards took a serious approach to this matter. Edwards introduced the Building Security Act to support research into improved safety standards, building construction, and building security methods. But the most interesting questions were posed by South Carolina's Ernest Hollings, then the most senior Democrat on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Hollings has more than a passing interest in fire safety, having lost his home to a fire a few years ago.

The former senator directed his questions to the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM) Partnership for Safer Buildings, a coalition involving NASFM, Underwriters Laboratories, Factory Mutual Global Research, the California Fire Chiefs Association, the American Plastics Council, building owners, architects, and the Center for Infrastructure Expertise. The partnership had recently completed an exhaustive review of the model building codes that are published by the International Codes Council (ICC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

The group identified a number of significant weaknesses in the fire safety requirements in the model building codes. Because states and communities nationwide routinely use these codes, the safety of all Americans is in jeopardy. The partnership's report--which can be downloaded at www.firemarshals.org/issues/catastrophic/initial_report.html--was distributed to code enforcement officials, builders, architects, federal, state and local government officials, and members of Congress.

Hollings' questions focused mostly on the removal of longstanding requirements for fire protective barriers on structural steel. These barriers prevent steel structures from melting and collapsing when fires become intense, a matter of serious concern to building occupants, owners, and firefighters.

While it is a good idea to read the partnership's report, you can get a sense of the document from Hollings' questions. Below are his questions and some of our observations about what he was asking.

Q: What were the model building codes' technical and scientific justifications for reducing the requirements for the protection of structural steel? Relaxation of these standards seems to contradict all that we are hearing about the need for redundancy in fire protection from the National Institute for Standards and Technology and other independent organizations.

Fire protection is and always has been a matter of redundancy. Hollings is correct in noting that the model codes are at odds with recommendations from NIST and discussions we have had with organizations as diverse as the Real Estate Board of New York and the Department of Homeland Security.

There is no public safety justification for reducing the requirements for the protection of structural steel, and neither model code organization could provide technical or scientific justification for this dangerous weakening of the model codes.

Q: For the past few years, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission has worked with industry to recall millions of defective automatic fire sprinkler heads. In reducing the requirements for protective coatings, were these recalls considered? Is the public safe when both sprinklers and protective coatings may be insufficient?

The failure of a fire sprinkler system is a catastrophic event, particularly when critical safety features such as firewalls or fire protective barriers for structural steel have been eliminated.

Q: Why is there no requirement to ensure that protective coatings remain in place over time?

With little effort, the partnership found deteriorated coatings and exposed steel structures in hospitals, schools, and other multi-story buildings. Some coatings are so shoddy that deterioration may begin even before a structure is occupied. We require regular inspections of sprinklers and should do the same with protective coatings.

Q: Do the model codes intend to implement the recommendations of the partnership, and if so, when? If they do not, what other means are available to make all necessary changes to the building codes in a timely manner?

That is a question yet to be answered by the model codes organizations. Firefighters were impressed with emergency code changes enacted by the NFPA following the fire at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island last year. We hope they do the same here.

Q: The safety of health care facilities and schools is a priority for all Americans. To the best of your knowledge, have the inadequacies outlined by the partnership as yet compromised the safety of schoolchildren or patients?

The unfortunate answer to Hollings' question is "yes." In fact, in South Carolina, we found three new schools that were, or are currently, being built to the new International Building Code (IBC) and have significantly less fire protection than they would have if built according to the Standard Building Code the IBC replaced. We do not present this information as a scientific sampling of schools, but we are troubled to so easily find examples in the senator's own state. Based on these preliminary findings, we believe a more exhaustive evaluation of building safety should be conducted.

Under the Standard Building Code, each of these schools would have been constructed with columns, beams, and roof components that are fire resistant. This ensures that a fire will be contained until occupants have had a chance to escape; it also provides firefighters with a margin of safety to extinguish the fire before the building collapses. But in a two-story, 150,000-square-foot middle school built near Columbia under the new IBC, the stairwells are the only areas in the building that are protected from fire.

At Blythe Academy (near Greenville), which is now currently occupied, the ceiling over the mechanical room is the only critical area that has been protected. None of the structural components is protected in this 119,000-square-foot building that houses children.

Lastly, at Paris Elementary School (near Greenville), only one room is required to be protected with fire-resistant construction under the new code.

Protecting Life and Property
No doubt, former Sen. Hollings' questions will upset those few individuals who view the model codes as a means of keeping construction costs low. But to the rest of us, the model codes have only one true purpose--to protect human life and property.

For the most part, the model codes have done their job well, but they are far from perfect. Where mistakes have been made, the model code organizations need to act with integrity and with a sense of urgency. These codes are a privilege, not a right. Consider the fate of the voluntary standards for public accounting. Without hesitation, Congress reacted to obvious violations of the public trust and replaced public accountants' voluntary approach with government regulation. The public demanded as much.

The safety of buildings--our hospitals, schools, workplaces, and homes--arguably is more important than the safety of our stock portfolios. Let's welcome the tough questions from Washington and be prepared to give honest answers. Let's correct past mistakes and seek higher levels of safety. In the end, the only question is, "Are Americans reasonably safe in their workplace, in their home, in hospitals, and at school?" The federal government wants answers.

This article appeared in the February 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the February 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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