Codes of Conduct
For those who are unfamiliar with the code change process of the International Code Council, the developer of the IBC, a brief summary is provided here. There are two main parts to the code development process. First are the code development hearings and approximately seven months later are the final action hearings.
Individuals or organizations that would like to propose to add, delete or modify text in the previous edition of the code submit a written public proposal. The proposals are collected and published, and the code development hearing is held to deliberate on those proposals. Several distinct committees are appointed by the ICC to evaluate the proposals.
For example, on fire safety issues in the IBC, there are three committees responsible for different sections of the code: the Fire Safety Committee, the General Committee and the Means of Egress Committee. During the code development hearings, the committees listen to testimony for and against each change proposal and then vote on whether to accept or reject the proposed code change, requiring a simple majority for a decision. Any of the decisions of the committees can subsequently be challenged in writing by anyone, by submitting a public comment to the ICC.
The submitted public comments are collected and published, and testimony for and against each public comment is heard at the final action hearings. This time, there are no committees to decide on the fate of the public comments. Instead, the ICC voting members (code officials) in attendance vote to decide whether each public comment will be accepted or rejected; in other words, whether to uphold or overrule the decisions made seven months earlier by the code committees.
Subjectivity factorIt is important to realize that there is usually no objective truth regarding whether a particular fire safety feature is warranted or not, and whether it should therefore be mandated by code. Each one is a value judgment with regards to whether it provides some valuable level of fire safety to the public, and whether it is accomplished at a cost that is fair and reasonable for the building owner to bear. It is this juggling act between benefits and costs that participants in the code process must deal with. Opinions offered in the analysis below similarly reflect this author's opinion and professional judgment, and could be seen as completely erroneous to some readers. The opinions are therefore simply offered as food for thought.
There was a group of related code change proposals having an almost negligible cost. These proposed to mandate the identification and marking of walls that are designed and erected to have a fire-resistance rating. One threat to the reliability of these walls is that their fire resistance and smoke resistance could be compromised over the life of the building by the indiscriminate retrofitting of wiring, piping, ducting or other services through that wall. Proper firestopping of these penetrations, as required by the building code, fire code and Life Safety Code, will preserve the fire and smoke resistance of the wall. However, for a variety of reasons, it seems that these penetrations are sometimes not firestopped.
The relevant code change proposals suggested that rated walls all be marked very simply with the words, "Fire and Smoke Barrier: Protect all Openings." The underlying rationale is that if trades people are made aware that they are penetrating a rated wall that provides fire safety, such knowledge will eliminate breaches in the wall's fire integrity unwittingly left unprotected. With cost of labeling not being a viable objection, and knowing that the Standard Building Code had this exact requirement for years, one would think that this code change proposal would have a good chance of being voted in by the code committee. In fact, the committee rejected the code change, stating that it foresaw implementation difficulties due to lack of details (i.e., how large should the letters be, of what color, at what horizontal intervals should the words be printed, how to maintain the markings, etc.).
It is interesting to note that not a single code official from any state that used the SBC as a model code stood up to testify about their experience in enforcing this requirement. The code change proposal was a verbatim copy of what existed in the SBC. This illustrates one problem with the ICC hearings. A small number of very vocal and very active code officials do get up to speak. But more than 95 percent of the attending code officials never get up to the microphone to contribute their opinions or experience. Perhaps they may think that their observations would not be valuable. However, the opposite is true.
Hearing the perspective of the code officials who must understand and enforce code requirements is invaluable. Even if three to six code officials were to get up to speak on each code change, the code committee and the others in attendance would get so much more of a complete picture. Representatives of companies and associations with a financial interest never seem to hesitate to speak up. It is a cross section of neutral observers' opinions that the process is sometimes missing out on.
To be fair to those who don't speak up, it really is intimidating to stand up in front of several hundred people, your voice echoing over the whole ballroom-sized hearing room, your face projected on two giant screens on each side of the room, and possibly remembering that your voice and image are also being broadcast on the Internet. This author's hands were shaking the first time that I ever got up to speak in this forum. Despite all this, it's a shame that more code officials do not brave all of this so that we can benefit from their collective wisdom and opinions.
Smoke barriersAnother code change proposal (FS64-04/05) involved imposing a maximum allowable air leakage through smoke barriers. Smoke barriers are one hour fire-rated barriers used to subdivide hospitals and jails into two or more protected smoke compartments. In the event of a fire, an evacuation of the occupants who are in the compartment of fire origin to the adjacent smoke compartment(s) provides a safe alternative to evacuating the building entirely. This is of obvious benefit in jails and hospitals. The maximum leakage proposal was rejected by the code committee.
As was pointed out during the testimony, this requirement actually already exists in the International Fire Code. Without this requirement in the IBC, a building could be completed that is IBC-compliant but that would immediately be out of compliance with the IFC. A complete set of coordinated codes, such as the codes from the ICC (the I-Codes) should ideally not cause this kind of predictable non-compliance. However, a different committee deliberates over the IFC than those that deliberate over the IBC. Perhaps the different conclusions and conflicting requirements are an unavoidable consequence of human nature.
Nevertheless, the committee did take some action to address the issue of air leakage, and therefore smoke leakage, through smoke barriers. They approved FS96-04/05, which mandates a simple maximum of 5 cubic feet per minute per square foot on the leakage for each individual through-penetration firestop system installed in a smoke barrier. The air/smoke leakage through firestop systems is tested by listing laboratories and reported as an "L-rating" value in the listing directories (e.g. UL Fire Resistance directory), the same information source that one would need to turn to for selection of firestop systems with the appropriate fire resistance rating.
About 75 percent of the through-penetration firestop systems with a published L-rating have a rating of 5 cubic feet per minute per square foot or less. The effect of the code change would therefore be to cause the person selecting the firestop systems for a smoke barrier to avoid the 25 percent of systems with the least smoke-tightness. An interesting code change proposal that could be considered gutsy was FS74-04/05, which proposed that all firestopping should be installed by persons qualified in accordance with standard ANSI/ASME A112.20.2. On the surface, it would seem that having some minimum qualifications for firestop installers could be a favorable thing.
However, reading the referenced standard, one finds that to be considered as qualified in accordance with the standard, a person must have a minimum of four years of plumbing experience. There is no requirement for any firestopping experience! Not surprisingly, this code change proposal was rejected by the committee. This is an illustration of the goal of some proposals, which is to attempt to shift one type of labor or materials used in a building to another type, and why input from all sectors of the construction field is critical in the code change process.
Public proposal FS107-04/05 aimed to clarify the fire-resistance rating that is required for doors in smoke barriers. IBC Table 715.3, which tabulates the required fire ratings for doors in different types of rated walls, requires ratings of 1 hour or 3/4 hour for doors in 1-hour fire barriers. Without any substantiating data being submitted with regards to the merits of one door rating over another in a smoke barrier application, the committee accepted the 20-minute rating proposal, apparently for no reason other than the fact that they were convinced that some number should be inserted into the table to cover smoke barriers.
The committee's published reason for accepting the code change is arguable, stating "the performance of a smoke barrier is related primarily to limitation of smoke spread." Yet, the two main uses of smoke barriers are to allow a defend-in-place strategy or relocate to-safety strategy in jails and hospitals. That wall has to defend people on the other side from fire and smoke. To arbitrarily assign the lowest possible door rating to the protective wall in these two occupancies seems to do a disservice to the safety of those occupants. We will now have 1-hour walls nicely compartmenting these buildings but with a pre-assigned weak spot at each and every door. Knowing how the code typically evolves, if this code change makes it through the final action hearings to be included in the 2006 edition, if anyone were to challenge it at the next cycle, they would inevitably be rebuffed due to not having any substantiating data to prove that the door fire rating needs to be increased. Ironically, there is absolutely no data offered to indicate that this is the right rating to begin with. But once something makes it into the code, that requirement becomes the dogma that typically needs a hugely persuasive argument or analysis to displace.
Fire Marshals' proposalsThe National Association of State Fire Marshals submitted a few code change proposals. These drew quite a bit of interest, given this organization represents a wide constituency that includes all 50 states and which should have no apparent economic interests that might distort their judgment of the issues in either direction. The code change proposals were developed by their "Partnership for Safer Buildings."1# In reading the substantiating statements for their code change proposals, one can conclude that those proposals were arrived at based on three main factors:
1. Their realization and examination of the decreases in the required level of fire safety in the IBC as compared to that in the model codes that the IBC replaced;
2. On the Partnership's own program of site inspections that clearly revealed that numerous fire protective features are substantially less than perfect in their installation, maintenance and inspection;
3. On the significant number of fire sprinkler head recalls, with a significant percentage of recalled heads still not replaced many years after notification was issued. As a result of these considerations, NASFM are advocating for code changes that "acknowledge the importance of balanced fire protection within a building's environment." As they very forcefully stated, "Trade-offs between active and passive fire protection systems make no more sense than allowing stronger bumpers in exchange for less effective brakes on a car. While economic realities make the need for some tradeoffs inevitable, the pendulum has swung too far in favor of economics over safety."#2
Code change proposals from NASFM aimed to modify Table 503 (allowable heights and areas) and Tables 601 and 602 (Fire resistance requirements for building elements) to more conservative values, such as had been used in the more stringent model codes that pre-existed the IBC. The NASFM code change proposals were all overwhelmingly defeated in the committee votes. It will be interesting to see how the NASFM-proposed code changes will fare when subjected to a membership vote at the September final action hearings in Detroit.
As an example of a code change proposal that went in the opposite direction from those proposed by NASFM, there was a proposal that sought to drastically change the requirements for the separation of different occupancies. The code change proposal was to delete Table 302.3.2 (Required separation of occupancies), and completely replace it with a Table developed by the proponent. The biggest and rather notable changes between the existing table 302.3.2 and the proposed replacement is that some separations that previously would have needed to have fire resistance ratings of 1 hour, 2 and even 3 hours would no longer be needed at all. Examples include separations between educational and assembly occupancies, business (e.g. office) and factory occupancies, storage (S-1) and mercantile occupancies, just to name a few.
These and other occupancy combinations would no longer be required to have any separation. No justification was offered by the proponent for the reduction of the requirements, other than to state that the occupancy separation requirements are seldom invoked. It was asserted that most designers choose instead to design for a "non-separated mixed occupancy," in which case the construction for the entire area is as-required for the worst case occupancy. In this writer's opinion, this was probably the single code change heard by this committee with the largest reduction in fire safety requirements. The code change was approved by the committee, with one of the committee members stating during the committee discussion that "the proposal does not have any significant technical changes from the current requirements." This statement was thankfully printed in the code hearing results, or else it might have been hard to convince non-attendees that such a statement had been made, given the magnitude of the changes. Once again, it will be quite interesting to see how the membership will vote on this code change, which will inevitably be challenged, at the final action hearings.
There were dozens of other interesting code changes that were debated and decided upon at the Code Development Hearing. The above provides but a few examples that illustrate the workings of the ICC code change process. Anyone who would like to have a voice in shaping the 2006 IBC is encouraged to attend the final action hearings this September in Detroit.
References:1 See http://www.firemarshals.org/
2 Public proposal G92-04/05