All Fire Codes are Local

Aug. 22, 2003
Your company is obligated to follow local fire codes, as well as OSHA fire regulations. Do you know the requirements?

The late speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tip O'Neill, once said, "All politics is local." The same can be said of the nation's fire codes. Perhaps it is because of the highly-localized, community-specific nature of these codes, but my observation, based on more than 30 years' experience as a safety professional, suggests that most occupational safety and health practitioners focus all of their attention on OSHA regulations while remaining woefully ignorant of the requirements of the fire codes that apply in their local jurisdiction.

I am indebted to my friend Marshal Klein, a code-consultant and registered fire protection engineer, who expanded my horizons by introducing me to a whole new world of fire and building code enforcement. Once I started exploring this exciting new world of local fire codes, I discovered a curious conundrum: compliance with OSHA regulations may result in violations of local fire codes. For example, OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.106(e)(2)(iv)(d) permits flammable liquids to be dispensed by gravity through a self-closing valve, such as a 55-gallon drum lying on its side with a self-closing valve screwed into the bunghole, a fairly common sight at many facilities.

However, section F3203.5.1 of the 1993 BOCA "National Fire Prevention Code," which has been adopted by many jurisdictions, specifically prohibits this practice. It states, "Flammable liquids shall not be dispensed by gravity from tanks, drums, barrels or similar containers. Approved pumps taking suction from the top of the container shall be utilized."

So in principle, an establishment that passes an OSHA inspection could be cited and fined by the local inspection authority such as a county fire marshal. Conversely, compliance with local codes may result in violations of OSHA standards. For example, a spray booth installed in accordance with the local fire prevention code may violate OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.107(c)(2) which prohibits "spark-producing equipment in any spray area or within 20 feet thereof, unless separated by a partition." In essence, this means that there can be no ordinary electric motors, exposed relay contacts, electrical receptacles or electrical appliances within 20 feet of the open face of a spray booth unless the equipment is in an adjacent room separated from the spray booth by a common wall.

However, many jurisdictions have adopted a version of NFPA 33 "Standard for Spray Application Using Flammable or Combustible Liquids," that permits ordinary electrical equipment to be installed within 5 feet of the opening of the booth if the spray gun is interlocked with the ventilation system so that the gun cannot be triggered unless the ventilation system is operating. This ensures that mechanical ventilation is provided when spraying is performed. An employer with a state-of-the-art spray booth incorporating this interlock feature and consequently meeting the local fire code could be cited by OSHA if an OSHA inspector whipped out a tape measure and found ordinary electrical equipment 10 feet from the face of the spray booth. Note that this is twice the distance allowed under the local fire code, but only half the distance required by OSHA.

Where do Local Codes Come From?

A local jurisdiction may develop its own fire codes from scratch, but most build on existing work performed by code-making organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association or the International Code Council (ICC), which is made up of the former Building Code Officials and Code Administrators International Inc. (BOCA), International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO) and Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI). These organizations develop model fire prevention codes. These model codes are intended to meet the needs of municipal fire officials who seek a framework of regulatory requirements that will enhance fire safety in their communities. They address the full spectrum of fire prevention issues, such as: precautions against fire such as open burning and open flames; fire protection systems such as automatic sprinklers; emergency planning and means of egress; specific process hazards, such as the control of combustible dust; handling and storage of flammable liquids; and welding and hot work. Model codes also contain detailed requirements for some specific occupancies, such as dry cleaning plants, lumber yards, and tents and other membrane structures. Some of the more well-known fire prevention model codes are:

  • BOCA National Fire Prevention Code published by the Building Officials and Code Administrators International.
  • International Fire Code published by the International Code Council (ICC)
  • Uniform Fire Code, sometimes called the Western Fire Code, published by the International Fire Code Institute.
  • NFPA-1, Fire Prevention Code, published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)

Some of these titles may suggest that the codes apply nationally, even globally. However, no model code carries the force of law until it is adopted by a legislative body such as a state assembly or city council that is empowered to enact laws or ordinances. Once adopted by a legislative body, the model code assumes the full force of law.

There are basically two methods for adopting a model code adoption by transcription and adoption by reference. Adoption by transcription is a process in which the complete text of the model code is transcribed word-for-word into a local ordinance or statute. Adoption by reference is the process by which a model code becomes enforceable by the legislative body simply passing a bill or ordinance that specifies that the jurisdiction is adopting a specific edition of a particular code that will serve as its own municipal code.

As a practical matter, to avoid any errors in transcription a comma in the wrong place can change the meaning of a regulation and to scale down the mountains of paper generated by an agency, many authorities adopt a model code by reference. To facilitate this adoption, model code-making organizations will even provide examples of suggested wording for adopting a model code that can be used to draft a legislative bill or ordinance.

However, when a model code is adopted by reference, the sponsoring authority frequently makes amendments to it that reflect local concerns and issues. Some provisions may be deleted, others added. It is very important to keep this fact in mind because in order to know the exact requirements of a local code, you must have a copy of both the model code that was adopted and all the amendments. The amendments may be available from the enforcing authority or you may be referred to a legislative records office that can provide a copy for a nominal fee. Since model codes are revised on a regular basis, jurisdictions often keep up-to-date by revoking the existing code and implementing a revised edition. Both steps are frequently combined in a single piece of legislation.

The reason for the conundrum described above is now easier to understand: the two enforcing authorities OSHA and the local jurisdiction may be using codes that come from two different sources. Even if they come from the same source (model codes such the ICC codes), they can also incorporate by reference a different edition of an NFPA code than that adopted by OSHA.

Hazardous Materials

Don't be fooled into thinking that fire codes only address fire protection features and systems. Fire prevention codes also include provisions for storage, handling and use, and labeling of hazardous materials. For example, section 2703.1.1of the 2000 edition of International Fire Code limits the quantity of some classes of chemicals that maybe present in certain areas of a building.

For all you industrial hygienists, when toxic or highly high toxic compressed gasses are stored inside, section F2704.2.5 of the1993 edition of the BOCA National Fire Prevention Code requires that "a continuous gas detection system shall be provided to detect the presence of gas at or below the [OSHA] permissible exposure limit or ceiling limit. The detection system shall initiate an alarm and transmit a signal to a constantly attended control station. The alarm shall be both visual and audible and designed to provide warning both inside and outside of the storage area."

Promulgation and Enforcement

Different jurisdictions employ different promulgation and enforcement schemes. Some jurisdictions may have a state fire prevention code that applies to all occupancies state-wide. Other jurisdictions may only promulgate fire codes at the town or city level. Some jurisdictions may have a scheme that resembles Russian nesting dolls; there may be a state fire prevention code that applies state-wide, but counties within the state may also issue their own fire prevention codes. The county code incorporates the state fire prevention code, but includes other provisions deemed to be of specific interest to county officials. A town, village or city within the county may also issue its own fire prevention code. This code incorporates all the provisions of the state and county code with additional provisions deemed to be of special concern to town, village, or city officials.


In your quest to provide your employees with a safe and healthful work place as required by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, don't neglect the requirements of your local fire code. Since both codes and the manner in which they are administered vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, you may have to do a little searching around to determine exactly what codes apply to your facility since local fire codes and OSHA regulations may be derived from different sources. Compliance with one does not guarantee compliance with the other.

Sidebar: Identifying the Codes that Affect You

All fire codes are indeed local, so the best place to start your search for the applicable codes is to begin with the smallest political subdivision and work your way up.

Begin by determining if your town, city or village has a local fire code enforcement unit. You might have luck consulting the blue pages of the telephone directory if there is a listing for a fire prevention bureau that would be a good place to start. When you call, be sure to direct your question about what code is being enforced to a fire inspector, not an arson investigator. An arson investigator may not be as familiar with the code requirements as an inspector who works with the code every day.

If there is no fire prevention bureau, you may have to do some calling around to determine if an agency other than the fire department performs fire inspections. For example, fire inspections might be conducted by a building department or a department that issues various permits, or by an independent autonomous agency. Once you have identified the authority having jurisdiction, you can determine if a model code has been adopted if you are told something like, "We enforce the BOCA code." Be sure to learn the specific edition that is being used. You should also inquire about how you can obtain any amendments to the model code.

Sometimes, the agency that enforces the code can provide them. In other cases, you may have to obtain them from a legislative reference or legislative publications department that will provide a copy of the amendments to the model code for a small fee. If your town or village does not have a local fire prevention code, the next step is to ask if fire code enforcement is performed at the county or state level and if so, whom you can contact to obtain a copy of the county or state code.

Once you have the relevant code in hand, look for a section that shows what other codes the jurisdiction has adopted by reference. The length of this list can serve as a barometer of how much effort might be needed to fully understand the code requirements that affect your organization. Many enforcement authorities maintain a library of all the codes incorporated by reference that is made available to the public for inspection. If your enforcement authority makes such a library available, knowing its location and operating hours could save you a lot of time, effort and frustration trying to track down copies of each of the individual codes incorporated by reference.

If there is no county code, move to the state level to determine if there is a state fire prevention code. If you are interested in more than one jurisdiction, the state fire marshal's office may be able to provide you with a directory of all the local enforcement authorities in the state, with the name and phone number of a contact person who can assist you in obtaining a copy of the code.

Sidebar: Don't Neglect Local Building Codes

Local jurisdictions may also have building codes that have requirements for walking surfaces, and stair ways that are different from OSHA. For example, OSHA standard 29 CFR1910..22(c)(1) states that "every open-sided floor or platform four feet or more above adjacent floor or ground level shall be guarded by a standard railing." However, section 1005.5 of the 1996 BOCA national building code requires that open-sided walking areas where the drop in elevation is only 15 inches be guarded. Section 1003.2.12 of the 2000 ICC international building code requires guarding open-sided platforms when there is a drop of more than 30 inches.

I sometimes ask participants in my seminars why these regulations pertaining to fire prevention and buildings are called codes. The answer is because sometimes you have to be a cryptanalyst to understand them.

Contributing Editor John F. Rekus, PE. CIH, CSP, is an independent consultant. He has more than 20 years of regulatory experience and may be reached at (410) 583-7954.

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