Past, Present, & Future: Life/Fire Safety

Dec. 4, 2006
There has been a switch from using prescriptive-based codes to performance-based codes

For centuries, nothing has shaped the ever-evolving path of life-safety and fire-protection codes and systems more than a tragic fire. In their aftermath, investigations reveal what went wrong and what could have been done to prevent the blazes. Ultimately, codes change - so do system design and components. “There has been a change from using prescriptive-based codes to performance-based codes," notes Chris Jelenewicz, engineering program manager for the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, Bethesda, MD.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in Quincy, MA, performance-based fire-protection design differs from traditional, prescriptive approaches in several ways.

Designers bypass the traditional "recipe and list of ingredients" with which to develop a fire-protection system. Instead, they focus on goals and objectives to obtain those targets, such as maintaining the smoke level above the heads of people evacuating the building. "A performance-based code identifies the level of life safety without determining how you do it, and requires more engineering effort," Jelenewicz says.

The birth of such an approach has been a long and steady evolution - and one often driven by tragedy. Over the years, major loss-of-life fires in commercial and industrial facilities have helped shape the evolution of fire and life-safety codes and the related protection systems.

Consider the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory fire in New York City. Near closing time on March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building. One-hundred-forty-six garment workers died in the fire.

That fire gave root to what has become the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code®, according to Gary Keith, vice president for regional operations at NFPA. “It resulted in us forming a new committee - the Safety to Life Committee (1913)," Keith says. "That resulted in the creation of the NFPA Building Exits Code, which has morphed into today's Life Safety Code."

In 1921, the Safety to Life Committee expanded; the publication it generated in 1927 became known as the Building Exits Code. New editions were published in 1929, 1934, 1936, 1938, 1942, and 1946. But, jurisdictions didn't rapidly adopt the code and put it to practical use. A tragic nightclub fire in Boston is a case in point. On Nov. 28, 1942, a fire in the city's Cocoanut Grove nightclub killed 492 people and injured 166. Still ranking as the nation's deadliest nightclub fire, the Cocoanut Grove incident brought to light the issues of overcrowding, combustible interior finishes, and, again, egress.

After the Cocoanut Grove fire, Keith says that more jurisdictions began considering the adoption of the Life Safety Code, still known then as the Building Exits Code. The sheer number of fatalities in the fire drove home the point that stronger code adoption was needed and put the Building Exits Code under consideration as a tool for legal enforcement.

Because of this, NFPA re-edited the code. Revisions appeared between 1948 and 1952. Editions published between 1957 and 1963 moved the code along to its modern incarnation.

Other notable fires over the years have continued to shape the modern Life Safety Code, including a 1958 fire at Chicago's Our Lady of the Angel "landmark" fires have helped re-shape the way codes are developed, revised, and applied in both new and existing buildings.

“Codes are somewhat reactionary; that'sthe way they are and probably always will be. The goal is to have all buildings built with sprinklers. It's a major line of defense in protecting your building," Keith says.

Robin Suttell, based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.

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