FM Issue: Comply Or Die

By Robert A. Neale
Published in the July 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Facility managers may dread the idea of a fire safety inspection performed by the local fire marshal. The uncertainties of unplanned repair or maintenance costs, business interruption, or even protracted legal consequences make a visit from the fire department one that may seem unwelcome.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. With a little understanding, communication, and cooperation among all parties, the fire marshal’s visit may be a positive professional experience.

Facility managers should know that the fire department shares the same interests as they do: making sure the facility remains operational, profitable, and safe for employees and visitors.

Why Inspect?

Despite how it may seem, the purpose of fire safety inspections is not solely to write up code violations. Well educated and well managed code enforcement personnel are concerned about identifying and correcting conditions that might cause or contribute to a fire or other hazardous incident.

The local jurisdiction has a compelling interest in maintaining the community’s infrastructure. Not only does the community benefit from a facility’s jobs, tax revenue, and overall economic value, it is important that the municipality be seen as financially and socially stable.

Although it’s hard to imagine today, several decades ago the Las Vegas tourism industry suffered a serious and long-term setback after two highly publicized hotel fires. In these incidents, more than 92 people died and another 679 were injured.

Furthermore, the local jurisdiction puts its firefighters in harm’s way to protect these properties, and fire marshals want to make sure their co-workers have an even chance to control the incident and return home safely.

Rights And Responsibilities

Building and fire codes represent the minimum standards a community is willing to accept to maintain life safety and fire protection. They must be adopted by the legislative authority and then have the force of law, just like the traffic code, nuisance code, or health and sanitation codes. As with these codes, the facility manager or property owner has certain rights and responsibilities under the law.

The fire marshal Is granted the right under the law to inspect as often as may be necessary, during normal business hours, to perform life safety and fire protection inspections in commercial, industrial, institutional, educational, and assembly occupancies such as theaters, restaurants, and night clubs. Court rulings generally limit residential property inspections to those areas the tenants might use in common, such as lobbies and corridors, storage areas, mechanical spaces, and service areas.

The fire marshal should provide the facility manager ample notice of the time and date for the scheduled inspection, but some jurisdictions prefer a surprise inspection program.

The facility manager also has the right to refuse to let the fire marshal enter the premises; although the fire marshal often has injunctive recourse and may be able to obtain a search warrant to conduct the inspection. Refusing entry usually establishes a negative professional relationship among the principals that could have long-term consequences.

If the fire marshal identifies hazards or code violations, he or she is required to provide the facility manager or owner written documentation of the findings. The codes require that the property owner or tenant correct the violations within a reasonable time frame established during the inspection.

Often, the fire marshal will require urgent items be corrected right away and give the facility manager more time to address problems that may take additional funds or require changes to the physical plant. Generally, unless the property owner and building occupant have a separate agreement, repairs that become real estate are the owner’s responsibility, and repairs or changes that are portable are the occupant’s obligation to address.

If the facility manager or owner disagree with the fire marshals’ findings, they have the opportunity to appeal. Generally, the preferred administrative method is to contact the fire marshal first, then his or her supervisor, before requesting a formal appeal through the community’s appeal process that includes public hearings, testimony and, perhaps, eventual court rulings.

Who Is The AHJ?

Building and fire codes refer to the person who has enforcement authority as the “code official” or the “authority having jurisdiction” (AHJ). This is the person who is legally authorized or assigned to enforce the rules of the adopted codes.

The fire code enforcement official may be known by a different title, depending upon local laws and customs. There are as many titles and job descriptions as there are differences in communities.

In many jurisdictions, the fire code enforcement officer is known as the fire marshal, a traditional name that implies he or she has law enforcement powers. The fire marshal also may be known as the chief fire prevention officer, chief fire marshal, fire code official, fire code technician, fire prevention engineer, fire inspector, or a variation of those terms.

The fire marshal may be employed by the local fire department—as is the case in most cities—or he or she may work for a fire district, county, or state agency. The fire marshal may have moved into the code enforcement role from a career in fire suppression or may have been recruited as a non-uniformed employee.

The fire marshal may have had some formal training in building and fire codes, fire protection systems and equipment, documentation and legal aspects, hazardous materials operating and storage practices, or, as is often sadly the case, someone simply passed along a copy of the fire code and said, “You are now the fire marshal.”

Fire marshals then find themselves behind the learning curve and need all the help they can get. Unfortunately, when this occurs, fire marshals tend to fall back to the letter of the code rather than understand its intent and flexibility.

The fire marshal may work for the fire chief, the building official, zoning officer, code enforcement officer, agency director, governor, or other municipal or state official. In any case, the fire marshal usually has a supervisor with whom the facility manager can communicate to discuss issues if they can’t be resolved with the fire marshal.

Demystifying The Codes

Many people ask why there are so many codes and why they are so different from one community to the next. These are legitimate questions.

For many years, local communities developed fire safety regulations to deal with their specific needs. In the 1920s, the first of the model building codes appeared; documents created by building safety professionals could be adopted locally without a jurisdiction having to create its own construction regulations.

Until recently, there were three nationally recognized model codes: those produced by the Building Officials and Code Administrators, the Southern Building Code Congress International, and the International Conference of Building Officials. These were the predominant code groups in the northeast, south, and western United States, respectively.

Recently, in response to market demands for simpler and more universal codes, these groups merged to form the International Code Council that promulgates a “family” of codes: building, fire, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, etc.

Meanwhile, the National Fire Protection Association, long recognized for developing fire safety standards, has entered the market with it own fire and building codes. And, in the western United States, the Western Fire Chiefs Association retains the publication rights to the “Uniform Fire Code.”

Although it appears the nationwide trend is toward the International Code Council “I-Codes,” local jurisdictions remain free to choose—or write—any code they wish. Building and fire code enforcement always has been, and likely always will remain, a local and state responsibility. Even when they adopt a model code, jurisdictions often modify the document to deal with real or perceived local issues such as fire service staffing, topography, climatic conditions, or even economic considerations.

In broad terms, building safety codes are broken into construction and maintenance categories, although the line between the two often is blurred. Construction codes usually include the building, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing codes that establish the requirements for how a building or facility will be constructed. Maintenance codes generally describe how a building or facility (including its use, storage, and operating practices) will be maintained.

The codes often reference one another, as in the case of the building code that may require a fire door to be installed, and the fire code that may require it “be maintained in accordance with the building code.” Fire codes also include requirements for the regular inspection, testing, and maintenance of fire protection systems such as fire sprinklers, fire detection and alarm systems, smoke management, commercial kitchen range hood systems, and special hazard fire protection equipment.

An Essential Document

When a new facility is constructed, the building official is responsible for issuing a Certificate of Occupancy (CO) when the project is complete. The CO may be likened to a building’s birth certificate; it authorizes legal occupancy for the building, describes the date the occupancy occurred, and describes the ongoing use of the structure or facility. The CO is an essential document that protects the owner and facility manager and should be posted in a conspicuous location with copies stored safely away.

All of the model codes state that if a building or structure was legally occupied, has not changed occupancy or use, and continues to be legally occupied, the fire code official must use the edition of the building code under which it was constructed as the yardstick for compliance. Thus, if a woodworking plant was built under the 1982 edition of the building code, obtained a CO, and has not changed use or occupancy since then, the fire marshal must use the 1982 edition of the fire code for ongoing safety inspections.

This code requirement protects owners and facility managers from having to upgrade to meet current code requirements. The one exception to this rule is that if something in the normal day-to-day operations has changed so egregiously as to create a distinct life risk or fire hazard, the fire marshal may invoke the requirements of the newer code through due process.

An Action Plan

What’s the best thing a facility manager can do to work with local fire officials?

  • Be proactive. Establish a professional, non-confrontational relationship with the fire marshal. He or she is a customer, just like the facility manager is his customer.
  • Develop regular inspection and maintenance schedules for fire protection systems and equipment. The NFPA standards outline inspection, testing, and maintenance schedules. The fire marshal will use these documents to verify code compliance.
  • Encourage employees to identify potential fire and safety hazards, and address them as soon as feasible, considering work schedules and budgets.
  • Explore alternative solutions to code compliance. All of the model codes allow the fire marshal to accept “alternate methods and materials” to achieve compliance with the intent of the codes.
  • If surprise inspections are inconvenient for the facility, ask for inspections to be scheduled. If potential hazards are corrected before the fire marshal arrives, everyone’s job is easier.
  • Have the facility risk manager or loss control specialist work with the fire marshal to develop compliance plans and schedules that work within reasonable time frames and within budget.
  • If there are planned changes to the facility, discuss them with the fire marshal early in the concept stage. He or she may be able to suggest common sense solutions to design problems, and information shared beforehand will make the permit review process go more smoothly.
  • Get involved in the building and fire code development process. Make certain that facility management issues are considered when code changes are made.
  • Consider attending code training in conjunction with local building and fire officials. ICC and NFPA offer regular training sessions, and have many online courses. Local agencies may have training opportunities as well.
  • Sponsor facility tours and training for the fire marshal and fire suppression forces. Fire officials tend to be more reasonable when they are familiar with the risks. Knowledge is power.
  • Communicate special fire protection and safety issues while protecting proprietary information. If the facility contains operations that are not intended for public knowledge, explain those concerns to the fire marshal.

A visit from the local fire official need not be confrontational. When facility managers work with fire marshals, their complementary efforts make the facility and the community a safer place to work or live.

With more than 30 years of experience in fire protection, Neale is a training specialist at the United States Fire Administration (USFA) National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD. The USFA is part of the Department of Homeland Security and is the nation’s prime government entity for training and education, data collection and research, public fire safety education, and fire prevention for America’s fire service and allied professionals. For information on USFA and to find out how to attend National Fire Academy courses, visit the Web