Codes and standards
NFPA Impact: May 2011
By Sean Tracey
The capabilities of local fire services need to be taken into consideration during the building-approval process.
By Sean Tracey
The capabilities of local fire services need to be taken into consideration during the building-approval process. Municipalities that fail to consider fire-service capabilities when approving new construction projects put fire services and the communities they protect in potentially liable positions. Indeed, under the National Building Code, buildings may be constructed that fire departments cannot successfully defend in a fire. I often speak of this issue in NFPA training sessions for the fire service: just because the building code says you can build it doesn’t mean you should. Provincial fire regulations need to be amended and a risk analysis needs to be added to the approval process for new buildings, and local fire officials needs to sign off on this.
The National Building Code and, by extension, the provincial versions, do not implicitly state the minimum capabilities of local fire services. The assumption in the codes is that there is adequate fire-department response capability but the code falls short in defining this. The problem this creates is evident in a number of areas: what about building-to-building separations? Can I build a six-storey structure when there is no aerial device in the community? What about water supplies for fire fighting? Building codes are silent on these issues and, therefore, the implication is that anything can be built. The assumption is that local development bylaws, if present, can restrict certain types of properties from being built. In provinces such as British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, where such bylaws exist, this is not possible. One option for the fire service is to approve the building’s fire-safety plan, but this won’t happen until after the structure is built and occupied, and thus will occur too late in the process to make a difference.
From my experience, close co-operation between the building inspection community and the fire service is essential but it is not mandatory. These relationships vary from city to city and are often a reflection of the personalities involved and the respect, or lack thereof, for their leadership. When local development bylaws prohibit certain construction projects, building proponents tend to pressure municipal councillors to approve the project anyway.
The problem is that many building and development officials feel that building codes remain their domain and, by extension, so do the necessary approvals. Just because the building code says we can build certain structures doesn’t mean we should. A simple verification that the local fire department has the manpower, equipment and skills to protect the building in question is necessary. If the fire department cannot adequately protect the building, the developer must re-evaluate the project. This may mean adding fire-safety features, such as sprinklers, or reducing the height or area of the building when these types of measures may not be required by the building code.
Recently, the Office of the Fire Marshal in Ontario introduced a guideline called Operational Planning: An Official Guide to Matching Operational Deployment to Risk. This is a potentially a good starting point for evaluating new construction against risks. This guideline sets out a critical task matrix based on low, moderate, high and extreme risk. Within each of these risk categories, there are lower and upper risk levels based on the numbers of responding firefighters. For example, a building that is deemed to be a moderate risk may require a response of between 16 and 43 firefighters. Using this tool during the building-approval process, we can see that if a developer were seeking a permit for a six-storey, combustible apartment building with sprinklers (a moderate-risk property), the fire department would need to respond with a minimum of 16 firefighters. But what happens if the community does not have 16 firefighters or an aerial device? Other factors should be considered for the building, for example, a reduction in height or non-combustible construction.
So, what should be done? The best way to effect this is to amend provincial fire regulations to require the preparation of fire risk assessments (considering the capabilities of the local fire department on new construction projects) as a requirement for building approval. This engages the fire service early in the approval process and helps to reduce potential liabilities a community may face. Once a risk assessment has been completed for one class of properties, future projects can be simply verified against this initial risk assessment. If new or higher risks are identified, then a more detailed review is needed.
Just because we can build it doesn’t mean we should.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org