Fire Code Milestones

When it comes to fire codes, most architects and engineers are familiar with the here and now—the requirements that designs must meet to pass building inspections and, most importantly, ensure the safety of homebuyers.

But following codes today is even easier when you consider the path that’s been followed and how those decisions over the years have led to key changes and, most importantly, lives saved.

First, it’s important to understand exactly what “fire code” means. This traditional name actually refers to the fire code determined by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) or the fire code from one of the legacy organizations that merged into the International Code Council, which generally applies to a building post-construction, after occupancy. Most home builders are more concerned about the fire protection requirements within the International Building Code and the International Residential Code, which largely dictate how the building is designed and built to prevent the spread of fire, such as fire walls.

Fire protection provisions may change as often as the full code cycle, every three years. But some changes have been more significant than others. According to Rob Neale, government relations vice president in charge of National Fire Service Activities for the ICC, two of those include:

Smoke alarms. Residential smoke alarms first became mandatory in the legacy codes in the early 1980s. And as they were recognized as being highly effective, and as prices came down, the number of required detectors increased. Today, smoke alarms are required in every bedroom and every floor level, and they must be interconnected so that if one goes off, they all do. The results are dramatic: According to a 2015 NFPA report, “The death rate per 100 reported home fires was more than twice as high in homes that did not have any working smoke alarms compared to the rate in homes with working smoke alarms.”

Residential sprinklers. The requirement for residential sprinkler systems was another milestone change to the codes—and one that continues to be a hot topic today. Sprinklers had been used in commercial spaces for more than 100 years. In the 1970s, says Neale, the NFPA, U.S. Fire Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) worked on a residential version using smaller pipes and less water. During this time, building materials have become more lightweight and furnishings more combustible, so sprinklers offer some relief to give families more time to escape and can help temper flames until the fire department can arrive. In 2009, the IRC adopted residential sprinklers; however, only a few states or jurisdictions have included the requirement in their version of the adopted code.

Today, residential sprinklers are one method for addressing the latest significant fire-code change to the IRC: R501.3 in the 2012 code and R302.13 in the 2015 code, which stipulate protection of exposed I-joist floor systems such as those above unfinished basements. Along with sprinklers, builders have several options for meeting the requirements, such as the application of gypsum board or mineral wool to the top of the bottom flange of the I-joist. Or installers can simply use LP’s new FlameBlock I-joist, which features a Pyrotite coating that slows the effect of heat and flames.

Another member of the FlameBlock family, LP FlameBlock Fire-Rated OSB Sheathing, also helps installers meet single-family fire code requirements. With an ignition-resistant Pyrotite coating, the sheathing is an ICC-certified component of one-hour and two-hour fire-rated wall assemblies and roof deck applications. In fact, in exterior wall assemblies, using FlameBlock sheathing can reduce construction time and labor costs by eliminating a layer of external gypsum.

Though there is not proven direct causation, it’s important to note that the number of fires and the number of fatalities has gone down over the last generation, Neale notes, a timing that correlates with better codes, products, and techniques.

Even with local jurisdictions’ capability to change the requirements, “Codes create consistency across our industry … which is important for design professionals,” Neale says.

He also encourages architects, engineers, and all building pros to get involved. “The code process is participatory. We want everyone to be involved. Everyone who lives, works, plays in a building can and should be involved.”

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