Fire codes can often seem rather mystifying. I’m not just talking about complicated code requirements. Development and enforcement of codes can also be puzzling.

Throughout this discussion, keep in mind that the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires that employers provide places of employment that are “free from recognized hazards.” Fire codes can be a very important resource for identifying recognized hazards in a workplace and providing the appropriate controls, safeguards and protective measures.

The fire codes issued by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the International Code Council (ICC) are consensus standards, which means that code requirements are the collective opinion of volunteer committee members who have at least some knowledge about the fire hazards, risks and protections covered by those codes.

The purpose of NFPA and ICC is to manage the consensus standards process by getting a balance of people to serve on code-writing committees and ensuring that the committees respond to public comments. People are often surprised to learn that the organizations are not responsible for the content of their codes, only for the proper operation of the consensus standards process.

NFPA and ICC have no role in the enforcement of codes. And the codes are not really meant to be enforced in the same way as OSHA regulations, for example, that are legally enforceable requirements with no flexibility or exceptions. Rather, the codes are intended as recommendations for local building code officials and other Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs) who are responsible for fire safety at a location.

A code is designed for what the committee believes is a typical situation. A business owner and local code officials are expected to evaluate whether a potentially applicable code was written in consideration of the hazards and risks that are present at the location.

Code committees must rely on generalized approaches. For example, to reduce risks across a very wide range of operations, the flammable liquid codes rely on a classification scheme that groups together materials with similar flammability characteristics and then limits the quantities of each class of flammable material that may be present at a location.

The codes that apply to industrial operations allow a business owner to seek a specific variance to the generalized code – and resolve the resulting possible mismatch between the stringency and cost of compliance and the hazards and risks that exist at the location – by conducting a fire hazards analysis that identifies appropriate protection measures for the location. Before taking this approach, the business owner should consult with the AHJ, which ultimately decides if the results of a site-specific analysis will be accepted.

I often get calls from plant managers with concerns that their local AHJ suddenly wants a change, such as a reduction in the number of resin and gelcoat drums permitted in the fabrication area. They ask when the code changed. In most cases, the requirement now being enforced has been present in the code for a long time.

The truth is that codes have been enforced very inconsistently. However, this is changing. Investigation of recent fires at industrial locations, some unfortunately resulting in the deaths of first responders, revealed that the incidents would have been less severe or may not have occurred at all if the applicable codes had been effectively enforced. Aware of this, the fire safety community is working toward a more thorough and consistent enforcement of codes.