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NFPA Impact: December 2009


November 16, 2009
By Sean Tracey

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Something wicked this way comes.” Shakespeare’s Macbeth contains this famous line of foreboding evil. There is a proposal being discussed to increase combustible construction limits in the National Building Code of Canada to six storeys.

Something wicked this way comes.” Shakespeare’s Macbeth contains this famous line of foreboding evil. There is a proposal being discussed to increase combustible construction limits in the National Building Code of Canada to six storeys. The fire service needs to engage now to fight this ill-advised reduction in building fire safety standards. Forthwith, a primer on the issue and a request for your support to fight this initiative.

The premier of British Columbia, in an effort to help save the decimated forestry industry in that province, pushed through the change for mid-rise construction with combustible components. Essentially, this increases the height of combustible construction to six storeys from a maximum of four. The fire service in B.C. had well-documented concerns that were laid out. These, however, were never adequately reviewed or answered. Many significant issues were, in fact, dismissed outright. But then again, it was a political decision at the highest level and it had to be expedited.

What was a politically expedient decision in B.C. has now become a potential national issue as it has been learned that a proposal may be put forward to make these changes part of the National Building Code of Canada. This means that a six-storey, timber-frame building could be built in any community in Canada, including those without fire departments, without aerial devices and without the needed water supplies. Thus, something wicked this way comes . . . 

When the B.C. issue first arose, NFPA’s Canada office was asked to assist and did. A number of points were raised and added to comments submitted by the B.C. Fire Service Liaison Group. These remain valid concerns that were never addressed when the construction was approved as having no increased risk to life. Now that B.C. has fallen, the forestry industry is on to the rest of Canada.

Canada has invested in an objective-based codes framework. This means that the old prescriptive codes became the basis of acceptable solutions. Changes to the codes must be equal to or better than these approved solutions. If the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes is serious about being an objective codes body then it needs to require changes to meet the equivalency test. There are tools available to be able to measure building performance under fire conditions. Tools such as NRC’s FIRECAM could quantify the added risk involved in such construction but those tools were never used. This is not an equivalent solution but a policy decision to reduce the standards in the codes.

Increasing height limits is not an improvement. Yes, the buildings would be sprinklered to NFPA 13 but then again so would any other non-combustible, six-storey apartment building. The great concern is that fire could get into vertical void spaces undetected. No job-task analysis considered the needed resources and timelines to put out such a fire and evacuate occupants. The fire services in many communities would be overtaxed attempting to extinguish such fires and evacuate occupants.

In addition, the codes do not define what an adequate fire department response is, so each community fire chief has to get engaged and fight against such a project if he has too few personnel, not enough apparatus or too little water.

This change should not be imposed nationally because one of the criteria used to assess code changes is enforceability at the local level. Permitting this as a uniform measure of construction without defining “adequate fire department” in the codes will result in non-uniform fire risk across Canada.

In a detailed, six-page letter, the B.C. Fire Service Liaison Group raised several concerns that were never addressed. Some of these included concerns about pre-fire planning and capabilities of smaller departments where these structures may be built, the lack of mandatory inspections in some jurisdictions, exposure to fire during construction, standpipe issues, emergency power and more. This included a call for a detailed engineering review of the planned changes before the structures were occupied. These are all very valid concerns.

The building codes permit many new innovative practices but these never consider the impact in the inevitable fire. The code writers have never experienced the rapid spread of fire and its uncanny ability to seek out void spaces. They have never experienced a floor collapse. They have never seen the impact on families left homeless by fire. The fire service needs to be vigilant on this and nip this one in the bud. The service needs to get engaged in the code review process and speak out.

So, to close with another quote from Shakespeare – this one from Much Ado About Nothing: “O, what men dare do! What men may do! What men daily do, not knowing what they do!”


Sean Tracey, P.Eng., MIFireE, is the Canadian regional manager of the National Fire Protection Association International and formerly the Canadian Armed Forces fire marshal. Contact him at stracey@nfpa.org


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