Building and fire codes: 2020 and 2025
November 4, 2021 By Tina Saryeddine
Many roads are paved with good intentions. We see this in the country’s building and fire code development process. The process has many positive attributes. However, these same attributes can also translate into unintended challenges. In this article, I look at a few of them as we anticipate the release of the 2020 codes and the next one in 2025.
Building and fire codes fall under provincial jurisdiction. Historically, this was delegated to the municipalities, which created enormous variation. As such, in 1937 the Federal Department of Finance asked the National Research Council to establish the foundations for what is now the Canadian Council on Building and Fire Codes. This council provided a model code that could be tailored to provincial needs. Efforts are now underway to further establish a coordinated provincial/territorial/national code development system.
Today’s codes are intended to ensure health, safety, accessibility and the protection of buildings from fire or structural damage. Recently, these codes have become objective-based, which helps industry and regulators determine the minimum performance that must be achieved. The IAFF and the CAFC have called for one of the objectives in the code to include firefighter safety. The rationale is that a building can be safe until it is compromised, at which time first responders will need to enter.
A firefighter safety objective would ensure that the building is designed to be ready for emergency, in other words, that first responders can save life and property. The 2020 codes won’t achieve a firefighter safety objective. They will make explicit that first responders are included when the code references safety of persons. This is not the clarity that is really needed. What is needed is some minimum standard of safety during emergency response. Perhaps a better term for this objective would have been a “firefighting safety” objective as the safety of the firefighter is surrounded by many other issues involving the public and property.
There is another problem that comes from not having a firefighting safety objective in the code. Without a firefighter safety objective in the code, it is possible that multiple code changes will bring multiple levels of innovation. Innovation is a wonderful thing. However, it has to be introduced responsibly. Imagine several industries introducing multiple innovations and the fire sector left to respond to emergencies involving these new materials and construction types without anyone having checked to ensure that fire departments have the information, training, equipment and capacity that is necessary. Unfortunately, no one is required to check if there is capacity to respond to emergencies involving code innovations.
On the positive side, however, another great attribute of the codes process is that it is evidence informed. This means that it should be less subject to undue influence by special interest groups since research is required to advance a code change. In other words, you have to “prove your point” in order to make it. You can’t just pay your way through.
The problem of course is that while you can’t use funds to buy a code change, you can use funds to generate the research you need to make your case. Organizations that do not have this capacity, like fire departments, are at a severe disadvantage. This is one of the reasons that the CAFC has called on the Codes Commission to rethink its process.
Consider that the Codes Commission has representatives from many industries that stand to benefit from their code proposals. By contrast the first responder community has no market benefit from the materials introduced. It doesn’t benefit by lower costs or higher profits. It simply must respond to whatever is the standard of the day.
The question is, therefore, should the fire sector be required to submit code changes that have the same level of research as a product that an industry member wishes to bring to market? Should the fire sectors votes have no more weight than any other industry member? Importantly, should the Codes Commission require a full analysis on the capacity of the fire sector to respond in the case of an emergency using the innovation?
Fortunately, the codes process is beginning to open up to these issues. Recently, the Canadian Home Builders Association expressed concerns that there was not sufficient consideration of the system impacts of new Energy Efficiency clauses. An appeals process was leveraged for the first time to look at this issue. We’d like to see this type of consideration to system issues for the other changes such as Encapsulated Mass Timber construction, which is expected to be in the 2020 codes, and the Mass Timber Construction expected in 2025.
Tina Saryeddine, PhD, MHA, CHE, is the executive director of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs where she works with the CAFC’s Building Codes Committee. The CAFC’s Building Codes Committee will be welcoming new members in 2022. Visit www.cafc.ca for more details.
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