When people think of fire prevention, they typically think of code enforcement, standards, codes, laws, and statutes. Depending on who you ask, they might also think of government overreach. Understanding fire prevention means learning about what Fire Marshals / Inspectors do.
Who are and what do Fire Marshals / Inspectors do?
Fire Marshals and Fire Inspectors are part of a code enforcement branch specifically designed for the fire service. We’re tasked with enforcing life, and property in a way that isn’t typically associated with the traditional fire service.
As a certified fire inspector, you are tasked with enforcing codes, standards, state statutes, administrative codes, and department and/or government ordinances.
Most fire prevention departments are tasked with developing and training community outreach programs, community risk reduction, fire department access, building life safety, and origin & cause investigations.
We’re also utilized by engineers, architects, and building owners for the districts we serve to help advise on how compliance concerns can be addressed.
Where do codes and standards come from?
It’s said that all codes and standards are written in blood, and the more you learn the more it rings true. Almost all major code revisions and additions have been due to large loss of life events that led back to those new standards.
As a fire safety inspector knowing the why behind the code helps to reinforce its meaning to you and helps to explain it to the public to gain compliance and education throughout your jurisdiction.
Some of the major tragedies that changed code:
Iroquois Theatre Fire
Location: The Iroquois Theatre in Chicago, Illinois.
Situation: The Iroquois Theatre fire occurred during a musical matinee. There were many flammable paintings and a flammable velvet curtain. The hot stage lights ignited the curtain which spread rapidly and trapped a lot of people attending. There were also doors that opened in and were locked from the outside during the performance.
Fatalities: 602 people
Code Result: Many codes such as emergency lighting, proper testing, and certifications for fire curtains and egress requirements came from this tragedy.
New London School Explosion
Location: The New London School in Texas.
Situation: An explosion occurred due to an undetected natural gas leak. The gas accumulated in a crawl space under the school and spread throughout the building until it contacted an electrical source. The electrical source ignited the gas and an explosion occurred. The explosion collapsed the structure leading to entrapment and death of those inside.
Fatalities: 296-319 people
Code Result: After this incident, Texas mandated mercaptan be added to natural gas to make it have its distinctive odor, and soon after this practice was mandated worldwide.
Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire
Location: The Cocoanut Grove Nightclub in Boston, Massachusetts.
Situation: The nightclub’s walls and ceilings were covered in paper palm tree decorations that caught fire when someone lit a match. At the time the club had approximately 1000 occupants, well over the established 460 occupant load.
Fatalities: 492 people
Code Result: This led to sprinkler requirement updates and requirements, proper flame spread and combustibility requirements for decorations, and updates to egress requirements.
Hartford Circus Fire
Location: Ringling Brothers’ Circus performance tent in Hartford, Connecticut.
Situation: The Hartford Circus fire happened during a performance where the tent was coated with paraffin and a ignitable liquid (used to waterproof). A side of the tent caught on fire and the flames spread rapidly, causing death.
Fatalities: 168 people, 100 whom were under the age of 15
Code Result: This led to many changes to how special performances/tents were required to treat tents and provide proper egress.
Our Lady of Angels Fire
Location: Our Lady of Angels School in Chicago, Illinois.
Situation: The fire began in a trashcan in a basement stairwell and the wooden staircase subsequently also caught on fire.
Fatalities: 95 people, of which 92 were schoolchildren
Code Result: This led to updates and changes to educational occupancies.
MGM Grand Hotel Fire
Location: The MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Situation: An electrical fire spread through the building 26 stories, the burning of PVC, wallpaper, and plastics created toxic smoke and fumes. Occupants were overcome by the smoke and toxic fumes permeating through the structure.
Fatalities: 87 people
Code Result: This led to changes to a higher standard for smoke walls, and increased requirements for sprinkler systems.
Station Nightclub Fire
Location: The Station Nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island.
Situation: This fire was due to pyrotechnics being set off that caught and spread fire through the highly flammable soundproofing foam around the stage. There were too many people in the structure and confusion ensued.
Fatalities: 100 people (200 injured)
Code Result: This led to changes in the code to egress markings, egress routes, and sprinkler requirements.
There are so many of these stories and lessons spread throughout history, each one typically will lead to a code revision or adoption. When enforcing codes, standards, or statutes, property owners and business owners will sometimes have the thought about government overreach. However, having stories such as the ones above will help you immensely in being able to explain the why behind such requirements placed upon them.
Fire Inspectors always consider the firefighter response
Another factor that needs to be considered during any inspection is fire service personnel. How would they respond to a certain type of call or incident at this location?
- Are hydrants properly cleared of any vegetation?
- Is the FDC (Fire Department Connection) accessible and in good working order?
- Are the fire lane markings properly being maintained and clear of any obstructions?
- Is the building properly addressed so that if responding to this location at 0300, firefighters can properly identify the facility in a timely manner?
When it comes to emergency services, whether it be a fire response or medical emergency, getting to the scene promptly is a factor that needs consideration.
Fire Prevention is part of the fire service and day-to-day contact with the community
A fire prevention department serves a wide range of roles and has a huge amount of responsibility in their day-to-day. Often overlooked as part of the ‘fire service’, it still serves to protect the community, property owners, as well as the other members of the department.
Fire prevention will contact much of your community on a more regular basis than any other member of the department. These department members will typically have a more thorough knowledge of the structures, communities, and access concerns of its jurisdiction than a regular firefighter.
Utilized properly, a well-staffed and trained fire prevention department can provide a benefit to every department at every level of the organization.
By providing a more in-depth look into what a fire prevention department does, department members can better utilize this resource at their fingertips.
One of my favorite parts of this career is to better support the shift personnel, providing education and helping to get potentially dangerous situations rectified.