Dangers of Just Building the Building

Thomas Clark
President, WSFIA

Senate Bill 32 was introduced in March of 2011 and addressed the concept of a commercial building code which could not be adapted to meet a municipalities needs. This Bill could have made the building code a Mini-Max code, or in reality, a mini code because the building will only be constructed to the minimum that it can be built, and still be considered a building. Local ordinances could have no longer been used to make the adopted code more stringent. This would have affected all ordinances that apply to the construction of a commercial building. This would not only affect fire protection ordinances, but also the local community development and building departments.

Unfortunately we are commonly at odds with the architects and the construction industry because safety and protection of the business may add a nominal expense to the construction. The building industry is profit orientated, and often does not have the consumer’s business and employee safety interest in mind. It must be understood that the fire service is not against development, but new buildings must be built with current fire and life safety features, using the current building codes and standards, along with local ordinances designed for that community. Each community has developed specific ordinances for the fire department needs such as fire department staffing, water availability, and fire apparatus capabilities.

The danger in a min/max code is that it can take away the control of the building department and fire service to have input into their own communities. We can all agree that each fire department needs to be managed differently. Much thought must go into response of fire fighters and the fire apparatus to an emergency event. Local ordinances come into play here mainly due to how the local fire department can respond. The City of Milwaukee responds out of the door with 25 fire fighters and the associated apparatus to a fire call. The City of Kenosha is able to respond to the same scenario with at least 15 fire fighters right away. Many municipalities are only able to initially respond with a few fire fighters and with less apparatus. A fire in a commercial building is the same wherever the building is located. Local ordinances are the tool a municipality can use to assure the life safety systems in the building meet the fire department’s needs. An example of this is a local ordinance that lowers the threshold of when fire sprinklers need to be installed. In this example, a stricter municipal ordinance can add fire protection immediately in buildings until the fire department arrives with enough fire fighters to mitigate the emergency.

Wisconsin already has a min/max code. The Uniform Dwelling Code (UDC) which is the code for all one and two family dwellings. This code is still a home grown Wisconsin code and is not a nationally recognized model code. The council which oversees this code has not met in over two years to update construction of our family’s homes, which is always changing. The safety of one and two family homes has already been under attack. Changes by the Joint Finance Committee to the 2011 – 2012 state budget seriously jeopardized the safety of the citizens in the State of Wisconsin. More specifically, the changes to the rule-making process for one and two family homes prohibiting the Department of Safety and Professional Services from promulgating any rule which increases the cost of construction or remodeling by more than $1,000. The revision will have a direct impact the ability to adopt and update national model codes. National model codes are what municipalities use to ensure that new construction will meet the challenges of life safety and construction technology. This effectively takes away protecting lightweight construction by installing gypsum board to the ceiling of a basement to give the occupants more than the six minutes in which new construction fails under fire conditions. Protection of our families by using the gold standard of residential fire sprinklers is even now more difficult in the State of Wisconsin. We all see the effects of fire and the lasting devastation it inflicts. Unfortunately we read the United States Fire Administration reports of civilian and fire fighter lives being lost on a daily basis. If a regional airliner crashed every week there would be a huge outcry to stop the carnage. But, this is how many people are lost because of fire every week, in their homes. Somehow these are acceptable numbers, and very little is said. This is the complacency that we as fire fighters and the life safety industry fight on a daily basis.

What has already happened to our families homes can very well happen to commercial buildings. As fire inspectors and we have an obligation to make sure the building is built to the adopted code, and to the municipality’s standards. We need to assure the life safety components of the building are built according to the design, and maintained so the systems will be operational if needed. Starting with the underground water piping system, the fire alarm system, exit and emergency lights, all the way to the final occupancy inspection. All systems must be looked at, properly tested and all discrepancies addressed and repaired before that building is opened for occupancy. The general contractor, the sub-contractors and the building inspector are completed with the building after the occupancy is approved. Fire departments are never done, as we now have the responsibility to perform semi-annual fire prevention inspections to ensure the employees and the business is protected for the life of that building. It is on our best interest to make sure the building is the safest it can be built to, to protect the employees, the business, and the fire fighters.

Keep in mind, national model codes are considered the minimum standard to which a structure can bebuilt. You are encouraged to contact your senator and representative to discuss the dangers of outlawing local building construction ordinances. Local construction ordinances may very well be under attack again in 2013.