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NFPA Impact: March 2011


March 1, 2011
By Sean Tracey

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January incident in Toronto at which two firefighters were injured combating a vacant building fire highlights some of the fundamental differences between the Canadian-model fire code and the NFPA fire code developmental process. Under the NFPA code process, the fire service plays a key role in the development of an open and accountable code that respects the role of firefighters in society.

January incident in Toronto at which two firefighters were injured combating a vacant building fire highlights some of the fundamental differences between the Canadian-model fire code and the NFPA fire code developmental process. Under the NFPA code process, the fire service plays a key role in the development of an open and accountable code that respects the role of firefighters in society. The NFPA code has been referred to as the fire code for the fire service.

According to an NFPA fact sheet, vacant-building fires account for about 4,500 firefighter injuries a year in the United States. Just six per cent of all reported structure fires are in vacant buildings, but they account for 13 per cent of firefighter injuries. Although these numbers may not be large, vacant-building fires represent a significant threat to firefighters and surrounding properties. Between1998 and 2007, vacant-building fires resulted in 15 firefighter fatalities in the United States. A recent NIOSH study discusses vacant structures and recommends pre-planning precautions.

Under Canada’s National Fire Code (NFC), the only requirement for a vacant building is for the property to be secured against unauthorized entry. Under the NFPA’s fire code (which has been used in Prince Edward Island for more than 30 years), the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) requires that all combustibles be removed from the structure. In addition, the AHJ can require that all fire-protection systems be maintained and in service. This is essential if the vacant property is located in a dense, downtown-core area, thus posing a possible risk to adjoining or exposed structures. Inactive fire-detection systems and suppression systems can significantly hinder fire-department efforts to contain fires in vacant buildings, thus exposing the surrounding urban properties to significant risk. Without working fire-detection and fire-suppression systems, firefighters are at greater risk, as fires can be more challenging than indicated.

Without specific fire code provisions, there is little recourse for the fire service to demand that these systems be kept in service, except through a bylaw. In my opinion, this deficiency highlights the lower level of importance placed on the fire code by Canadian code writers. It also reflects the fact that protection of firefighters is not a requirement of the Canadian building and fire codes – something we are trying to change.

The differences between the NFC and NFPA codes prompted me to submit a change proposal to the Canadian Code Centre in 2001 for the 2005 National Fire Code.

The change proposal called for a new provision that would require the development of a close-up plan for approval by the AHJ. This plan would address the protective measures that would remain in effect for structures that pose a significant exposure risk to other properties in the community. Costs to maintain minimum protective measures could be levied from the building owners or trustees. In exceptional cases, the city could bear responsibility for these costs by adding them to outstanding taxes owed on the property. Alternative procedures could be established with the AHJ in cases where costs or other conditions make such a plan prohibitive.

The code-change proposal was never acknowledged or brought before the technical committees (that we know of) and no response was provided on its status. This highlights the lack of transparency and accountability of the Canadian building and fire
code system. The process used to write these codes does not even meet the requirements of the Standards Council of Canada, and therefore, the codes cannot even be deemed to be Canadian National Standards.

This is not the case in the NFPA code. Under the NFPA code process, any comment received would have been sent to the committee and voted on. All results would have been published in the public domain. This is not so in Canada and this should change.

The Canadian building and fire code system fails to meet the needs of the Canadian fire service. It is neither transparent nor accountable.

We need a fire code that empowers the fire service and authorities having jurisdiction to impose requirements that will safeguard them.

Changes that will help to safeguard firefighters and communities from risks posed by vacant buildings would be a start. How many close calls or firefighter lives will it take for this change to happen?


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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