WHAT’S AT STAKE?

Paul Combs, Whats at Steak?

by mobrian on July 19, 2009

By: Azarang (Ozzie) Mirkhah, P.E., CBO, EFO, CFO, MIFireE

Danger is lurking and our firefighters must be aware and take immediate measures to protect their own safety along with the safety of the public they are sworn to protect. All firefighters across America must become fully aware of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) systematic behind the scene maneuvering at the state legislative levels in many states across the land, which is intended to erode the rights of the jurisdictions to adopt and enhance building construction codes at the local levels. This is a very dangerous trend not only to the safety of the public that we are sworn to protect, but also to our own firefighters.

The focus of this article is on our firefighters’ safety. Firefighters are accustomed to routinely face the immediate emergency and life threatening situations, thus they are not intimidated when facing danger. They can face and in time mitigate any and all emergencies. But then the flaw with that such perspective is in down playing the risk probabilities of dangers that are not immediate in nature, and also not being mindful of policies that in the long run could erode the safety of the community and firefighters’ safety.

Let me be as blunt as I could. Our firefighters must wake up and smell the coffee and recognize that the building construction codes have a very direct impact on their safety. After all, it isn’t the fire station, but the burning building that is truly our firefighter’s real work environment. Structural integrity and safety of these buildings during fire is indeed directly relevant to all firefighters and their families who expect them back at home at the end of each shift.

That being said, our country’s fire service must unite and standup, and not allow these special interest groups who are notorious for lobbying, manipulating and skewing the political system in their favor, to decide for our firefighters’ safety.

Such behind the scene maneuvering in manipulating the state legislatures has not gone unnoticed by our national fire service organizations. Back on January, 23, 2009, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) issued a news release titled “Homebuilders Trying to Preempt Adoption of State and Local Sprinkler Regulations” stating:

“The IAFC has learned that the homebuilders are starting an initiative to prevent local adoption of national standards that require residential sprinklers, by introducing state legislation that would block new code adoptions mandating residential fire-sprinkler requirements…… “We have spent considerable time working to help save lives by voting in favor of including residential sprinklers in the model codes,” said IAFC President Larry J. Grorud, CFO, MIFireE. “We know there is significant work to be completed to ensure sprinkler requirements are adopted across the country, and we will not let this anti-residential sprinkler legislation deter our efforts to reduce fire loss in America. I urge all fire service members to commit to defeating such legislation. Fire sprinklers save lives, and the public needs to know how important this is for their families, communities and the fire service.”

And similarly, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in their newly launched website “Fire Sprinkler Initiative” issued a “Legislative Alert” stating:

“New legislation is threatening the adoption of home fire sprinkler provisions for new one- and two-family dwellings. Across the United States, sprinkler opponents are pushing state legislation that would restrict a community’s ability to make its own decision about model safety codes for new construction. The legislation would prevent any community from implementing any new sprinkler mandates in one- and two-family homes. If it becomes law, such legislation will put lives at risk. “

Beware my friends that this is only the tip of the iceberg. The problem is much bigger than just the residential fire sprinkler requirements for the new homes. That is merely a cloak under which our opponents are advancing their goal of having control over the adoption of the building construction codes. Once accomplished they will be able to cherry pick what they prefer and then discard any and all fire protection and life safety requirements that they deem to be cost prohibitive and unnecessary.

Residential fire sprinklers requirement is only the visible part of the iceberg, but rest assured that the bulk of it is hidden well below the surface. And if the fire service does not take immediate corrective actions to change this dangerous course, it will jeopardize the life and safety of firefighters all across the country.

One of the first in the fire service to clearly see the big picture and realize what is really at stake, is my good friend Shane Ray, fire chief of the Pleasant View (TN) fire department. Shane recognized this dangerous trend early on just as it began to develop only a few weeks ago. Shane’s great article titled “Protect Our Homes, Maintain Home Rule” published quite timely in the March 15, 2009 issue of the IAFC’s On Scene. This article is a must read for all fire service members. Due to its importance, I have presented here in its entirety.

“National leadership is calling on leaders at the state and local level. Calling all fire service personnel to action!

Individuals and organizations across our country are taking action that limits our ability to best serve our communities. These special interest groups are introducing legislation to state government that limits a local fire departments’ ability to provide fire and life safety techniques and technologies, thus protecting our citizens and firefighters.

A recent IAFC member alert notified us that “Homebuilders Trying to Preempt Adoption of State and Local Sprinkler Regulations.” Their attempts are now going beyond fire sprinklers. They’re also trying to ensure local jurisdictions aren’t able to adopt model building and fire codes stronger than those adopted by the state.

This could severely limit items in the International Code Council’s body of codes and the National Fire Protection Association’s codes and standard especially designed to protect citizens and firefighters.

The divisions, sections, committees and general members of the IAFC must unite to fight these attempts to restrict local adoption of fire and building codes. The health, safety and well-being of our citizens depend on prevention and mitigation efforts before the emergency, which is when our emergency response kicks in.

This prevention and mitigation to the built environment is best accomplished with the adoption and enforcement of national, model building and fire codes. The International Code Council is the predominant building-code organization in our country and regulates the construction of most new buildings. The NFPA is the predominant codes and standards-making organization to ensure life safety from fire.

These model codes are developed at a national level by professionals from local levels, intended to be adopted and enforced by professionals at the local level.

As the fire chief of a local jurisdiction, you should be able to influence and encourage the adoption of the International Building Code, International Fire Code, International Residential Code, NFPA Life Code, The Uniform Fire Code or any version of the many available codes that reduce risk to citizens and firefighters in your community.

It is encouraged that our state governments promulgate codes that establish a minimum for the state, especially to cover those areas lacking any codes. However, it shouldn’t be the role of the state to limit our local ability to improve the level of protection to our citizens and firefighters.

House Bill 2267 in Arizona, Senate Bill 2354 in North Dakota and House Bill 554 in Texas are all aimed at limiting a local jurisdictions ability to adopt and enhance codes. Don’t lose your right as a fire chief to best serve. Don’t lose your community’s ability to best determine the building and fire code package best suited to protect the citizens and firefighters. Model building and fire codes protect homes to high-rises, and it’s our responsibility to ensure our maximum capability to provide the best possible service to our community.

Get involved! Join forces with your local and state organizations to unite and ensure the homebuilders and other special interest groups don’t take away our right to best serve the citizens and firefighters in our community. Visit www.iafc.org/flss for more information on how to be involved.”

This article is a “call to arm” for all fire service members. We must unite, take a strong stance, and get actively involved in defeating these ill-intended attempts by the special interests groups that are bent to write the building construction codes to suite their meager business needs which could result in a reducing the safety of our communities and jeopardize our firefighters and the public alike.

It is important to recognize that codes and standards developed by the internationally recognized organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the International Code Council (ICC) are the accumulation of decades of failure analysis, research, testing, technical evolution, building construction knowledge and field experience. And these well established code development processes in both these organizations have passed the tests of time and trail.

Every single year hundreds of fire service representatives across the country actively participate in these code development processes. Cumulatively, they spend thousands of hours preparing, reviewing, researching, analyzing, and developing codes; and if you assign a dollar value to these efforts, fire service spend millions of dollars participating in the ICC and NFPA code development processes. And that goes the same for our public servant peers, the building officials too.

We, the fire service members and our fellow building officials are the public servants tasked with protecting our public and our communities. Contrary to the private sector, we don’t have any vested financial interests in the building construction codes and fire protection and life safety is our prime interest. All these years, we have followed the rules and the well-established processes of ICC and NFPA to provide higher safety for our public and our firefighters. We have won some and have lost some. Yet, with all faith in the integrity and respect for the process, never gave up and increased or efforts in protecting our communities.

And now, our opponents are dissatisfied with our success to protect our communities and are crying foul. As I clearly stated in my article “Mission Accomplished; Not Yet” last year, our success in Minneapolis was only the first step, and our opponents will fight this anyway that they can.

Well, NAHB started the very next day and appealed the results of the hearing to the ICC. On December 11, 2008, the ICC’s Appeal Board ruled in our favor and unanimously upheld the residential fire sprinkler requirement. And then again, on December 19, 2008, the ICC Board of Directors unanimously rejected the NAHB’s appeal and upheld the residential fire sprinkler requirement.

After exhausting all their options and not achieving their goals in the ICC’s democratic process, NAHB is now taking the political route at the state levels to once again derail our successes in the building construction codes.

Here is their game plan in brief. They want the states to establish the maximum codes for their state, and prohibit the local jurisdictions from altering not exceeding them. Those maximum codes for the state, would be decided upon and written by a large panel of appointed technical and construction experts from the industry, with possibly one or two fire officials/building official on board as mere tokens.

It is not difficult to see that with this approach, the special interests groups in the private sector would be adopting the building construction codes that they deem to be appropriate to serve their interests. They can cherry pick what they like and discard what they don’t based on their cost impact perspectives.

Today, it is the residential fire sprinklers that they don’t like and want to yank out; tomorrow it could be the smoke detectors, or the fire resistive rating of the walls, or exit widths, or emergency access, or exit doors and windows, etc. This is a very dangerous slippery slope that could jeopardize the safety of the public and our firefighters. Yet, in this scheme the governmental public servants, the fire officials and the building officials that are tasked to protect the good of our communities are outnumbered and silenced.

Our opposition is cloaking their intention behind the flag of freedom and democracy of choice for each state to determine their appropriate levels of fire and life safety. Yet, hypocritically they want to deprive the local jurisdictions in the states of the same rights to make the very same kind of decisions.

I believe that in the absence of a true set of national building construction codes in our country, it is indeed every states’ right and very appropriate for the states to adopt and establish their own building construction code based on the ICC and NFPA codes and standards. But then these state codes must only be the minimum, and not the maximum. Each of the local jurisdictions then has the right to exceed those minimum state codes, but is prohibited to be less restrictive. That is what we are doing in most of the states right now.

Our opponents are approaching the state politicians claiming unfair governmental burden that is further restricting them to build and create more jobs to help with the recovery from this current economic slump. They are seeking sympathy by claiming to be the victims of these current economic conditions and foreclosures; yet don’t forget that in reality they were at the epicenter of this crisis in the first place.

They are not building new homes and are not able to sell their existing inventory not because of residential fire sprinkler; but because people are now unemployed and can not get the credit to buy homes. They were building and selling at high prices like there was no tomorrow only a few years ago when variable loans were too easy to obtain. And that was the major contributing factor to our current economic misery; not the residential fire sprinkler requirement that was adopted less then 6 months ago, and will go into effect January 2011. The real victims then are the American people that are victims of the greed of special interest groups. Our state level politicians must be reminded of these facts.

We all believe in our American way of freedom of choice and democracy, and the rights of states. By the same token, as a public servant, I believe that providing for the safety of our public and our communities is the responsibility of the government. Logic dictates then that the fire service and our fellow public servants, the building officials, should be establishing the levels of fire protection and life safety in our communities, not the NAHB and other special interest groups.

In his article titled “NFPA’s Take: The Importance of Speaking Out About Fire Sprinklers”, Jim Shannon, NFPA’s president, underlines the importance of this issue and the threat that it presents to the safety of our communities.

“State legislation being introduced and debated all across the country could prevent these life-saving requirements from ever being adopted in local communities, putting the lives of Americans at risk. The threat from these legislative attacks is real and immediate. Sprinkler opponents are working to undermine those safety provisions. In several states, sprinkler opponents are pushing bills that will prohibit local communities from adopting home fire sprinkler requirements in their jurisdictions. In other states, sprinkler opponents are even working to change the structure of statewide code adopting authorities, removing fire safety officials from this important decision-making process. Though the tactics of sprinkler opponents may differ from state to state, one thing is certain – we must do everything in our power to stop these efforts to undermine public safety and reduce input from the fire service. We must protect a community’s ability to choose for itself the right model safety code.”

Our firefighters all across the land should be alerted to this dangerous trend. What is at stake is much larger than residential fire sprinklers. What is at stake is not only the safety of our public, but our very own firefighters.

My brother and sisters in the fire service; ask yourself, do you really trust the special interest groups to keep your safety in mind, and provide you the necessary level of fire protection when you are going offensive in the interior of these lightweight construction buildings? And then, ask your loved ones who await your safe arrival after each shift, this very same question.

What’s your answer? Who cares more for the safety of our firefighters, than our own firefighters? If not you, then who should take a strong stance against these dangerous measures? How long are we going allow the special interest groups to play “Russian Roulette” with the safety of our own firefighters?

Now you know what’s at stake. My friends, it is up to us in the fire service to stand up, unite and fight for the safety of our public and our own.

Michigan has a code hearing this Wednesday, July 22, 2009. Please plan on attending or make sure your voice is heard on a local level. Talk to your fire chief, your City Manager, elected officials, or building official and become an advocate at the local level.

For more information at your finger tips, visit the Michigan Fire Inspectors dedicated web-page on residential sprinklers.

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