Sunday, August 5, 2012

Do you know how Life Safety Upgrades are adopted in Florida and around the country?

Have you ever been confused by the Life Safety jargon that applies to your multifamily community or your individual unit/home? Engineered life safety systems, fire flow requirements and uniform elevator keys may not be lingo with which you are entirely comfortable or even familiar. Are you even more distressed by the hefty bills that typically accompany any conversations with local building and fire officials using this terminology? You may even have wondered at some point, who has the final say in what your building's components need to look like and why. If you haven't been able to figure out the specifics, it's not a surprise. It is not in the local authority's best interests to involve individual Floridians let alone their representative associations in the political and rulemaking processes that affect their wallets and ultimately their lives; doing so would take more time and money and delay the process.

In many countries, fire safety codes and standards are drafted, debated and ultimately adopted by their federal governments. Not so in the U.S. where our Constitution leaves this up to our individual states. Now if our states were writing their own building safety standards (even knowing that standards would vary from state to state) we could still enjoy some level of comfort. However, that is not the case either and our states instead use "model" codes that are written by private organizations. The states may adopt these "model" codes entirely or with amendments. Ultimately, legislative bodies within local states and jurisdictions will have the final say, and the result might be inconsistent approaches across our country. As such, your financial burdens and life safety protections might vary widely if you live in New York or New Jersey, Tennessee or Texas and so on.

One of the private organizations that writes fire safety standards is the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). In the state of Florida, we are required by statute to adopt the recommendations this group makes every three years almost without question. We can add even greater restrictions to what they recommend but rejecting the NFPA's proposed rules is basically out of the question. Just who is this group then? Well the mission statement on their website reads as follows:

The mission of the international nonprofit NFPA, established in 1896, is to reduce the worldwide burden of fire and other hazards on the quality of life by providing and advocating consensus codes and standards, research, training and education.

Not surprisingly, their Board of Directors and their Officer Roster are heavily comprised of folks whose companies produce the products (sprinklers, elevator components, alarms, etc.) that are all needed to comply with their triennial recommendations. There is no doubt that this same group is also comprised of folks who have made it their life's work to protect public safety. However, in the absence of a legislative review of a private organization's recommendations and in the absence of any meaningful citizen input, we have no current checks and balances in a process that impacts lives and our economic welfare.

Section 633.0215(2) of the Florida Statutes reads as follows:

Florida Statutes, Section 633.0215(2): The State Fire Marshal shall adopt the National Fire Protection Association’s Standard 1, Fire Prevention Code but shall not adopt a building, mechanical, or plumbing code. The State Fire Marshal shall adopt the Life Safety Code, Pamphlet 101, current editions, by reference. The State Fire Marshal may modify the selected codes and standards as needed to accommodate the specific needs of the state. Standards or criteria in the selected codes shall be similarly incorporated by reference. The State Fire Marshal shall incorporate within sections of the Florida Fire Prevention Code provisions that address uniform firesafety standards as established in s. 633.022. The State Fire Marshal shall incorporate within sections of the Florida Fire Prevention Code provisions addressing regional and local concerns and variations.

A better approach might be to require the State Fire Marshal to present a report to the Florida Legislature every three (3) years outlining the proposed changes (before the changes are adopted), and how such changes will impact the specific needs of the State. From there, the Legislature can choose whether to adopt a particular change. I can already hear the bureaucratic criticism that this cannot be done but how would such a report truly be a burden on the Fire Marshal? Surely, this Office can accomplish this feat every three (3) years to ensure that the changes we adopt triennially are not unduly burdensome and actually accomplish reasonable goals. It would also be interesting to note how many times the State Fire Marshal has adopted the NFPA's Fire Prevention Code by blind reference with no additional modifications as needed or requested by the local citizenry. After all that is the easy thing to do but is it the wise thing to do for Floridians and others whose states handle such an important matter in a similar fashion?

1 comment:

  1. Well stated. As a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), another code writing organization I see where rules are written/revised by even a smaller group within the organization as there are Committees that work on standards for certain subsections of the Codes. A majority of such a subcommittee can add or revise a rule - this could be a very small number of people. These committee members are not paid, but volunteers, usually paid by their employers to serve on the committee.