Why Codes Matter to the Volunteer Fire Service

Most, if not all, volunteer fire departments have little or no involvement in code enforcement. To most volunteer fire Chiefs, code enforcement, plan review and fire inspections are the purview of the municipal building and/or codes department.

With all of the other demands on fire departments, this arrangement is understandable, but might not be the right thing to do. Codes matter to the fire service and we must start paying attention to them. Let me say that again: codes matter to the fire service and we must start paying attention to them.

After a fire on November 17, 2017, destroyed seven residential buildings and displaced 21 people in the City of Hornell, Fire Chief Frank Brzozowski was quoted in the Hornell Evening Tribune as saying:  “We talk about codes, and people don’t like codes, and they get frustrated when we have to do things the right way, but this is a case in point … years ago, when these houses and structures were built, this was the way things were built: one on top of each other. Now we have codes that say you have to be a certain distance, and you have to have fire ratings, and you have to have smoke detectors. And that’s why things like this were put into place because you can lose a whole city block very easily.”

This is an example of a Chief that understands why codes matter. There are many other examples of fires in New York State that have resulted in changes and improvements to the fire and building codes and the enforcement of them. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire may be the best known, but it is not the only one. This 1911 fire occurred on the top three floors of a Manhattan building that housed a sweatshop that employed mostly young, immigrant women. It resulted in 146 fatalities and 78 non-fatal injuries. An investigating commission, which included Francis Perkins who witnessed the fire (later the first female U.S. Cabinet Secretary), was tasked with finding out what happened.

Their findings resulted in many fire code and labor law changes designed to protect the lives of future workers. Among these were requirements for fire sprinklers and exit doors in New York City factories, including a prohibition on locking exit doors from the inside.

Exactly 79 years to the day after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, another tragic fire occurred in New York City. The blaze, at the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx, killed 87 people and was the deadliest fire in the city since 1911. The illegal club had no sprinklers, fire exits, emergency lights or exit signs. Events like this stress the need for effective and efficient code enforcement.

One more example of a New York fire tragedy that resulted in a significant code change was the Stouffer’s Inn Fire. Located in the Westchester County Town of Purchase, the Inn and Conference Center was a popular location for many of the international companies then headquartered in the area. Built in 1977, at a cost of $20 million, it had 366 guest rooms and numerous meeting rooms. It also had a two-level conference center adjacent to the tower that contained the hotel rooms.

When the fire started on December 4, 1980, PepsiCo, General Foods, IBM, Nestle and Arrow Electronics were all holding meetings at the Inn. The business executives in those meetings did not have a chance to escape. Within minutes, 26 people were dead due to fire and smoke inhalation. The fire’s rapid spread was a result of highly flammable carpeting and wall coverings and the fact that there was no sprinkler system in the building. Once again, fire codes were changed to require sprinkler systems in every hotel in New York State.

No one can argue that the changes that have occurred in response to these fires made improvements that have subsequently saved lives. Yet, it is just as vital that the fire service of 2020 not wait until another tragedy occurs to ensure that appropriate codes are adopted and enforced.

The primary responsibility of the fire service is to ensure the safety of the public and of our firefighters. We must be advocates and activists for improvements to all relevant codes.

Whether it is our ongoing fight to include residential sprinklers in the International Residential Code (IRC), revisions to standards for stairway construction materials or requirements for egress in commercial or agricultural buildings, the fire service must be part of the discussion.

New York State has adopted the International Codes Council (ICC) family of codes as the baseline for the New York State Fire Prevention and Building Code. Every municipality in New York State, including fire districts, have opportunities to participate in the code development process at the ICC.

As you think about how and why you need to pay attention to codes and participate in the building code development process, remember this – codes matter not only to the safety of the public we serve, they also matter to the safety of our members.

Codes impact the safety level of the buildings we are running into when everyone else is running out. Next issue, I will explore several issues important to the ICC and the opportunities for the volunteer fire service to participate in code development and implementation.