Caught Between Your Fire Marshal and your Building Official?

Caught Between Your Fire Marshal and your Building Official?

Caught Between Your Fire Marshal and your Building Official?

“You’re Not Getting the C.O. Until You Change It!”

Contractors and Building Owners have been getting caught up in the problem of conflicting opinions about fire prevention construction details ever since I have been working for New Mexico Home Builders Association.  Occasionally this involves residential construction.  For instance, I am remembering a frantic debate about subdivision-wide roof projections hanging into side-year setbacks in Albuquerque.  But mostly this problem occurs with commercial construction.  Often the contractor/owner finds out about THE PROBLEM at the most in-opportune time possible.  I can recall major panic over trying to open the building for the first basketball game in the UNM “Pit” just after a major renovation.  The fire guys inspected the finished project and said the building couldn’t be used because the emergency smoke exhaust system was all wrong.

In a well-organized world such things should never happen. 

A case could be made that to be successful; a contractor must accurately predict the future.  The contractor must be able to start with an empty lot and envision a project that will be acceptable to code officials, bankers, fire officials, zoning departments, and ultimately, the owner.  Anything that gets in the way of doing that successfully is a very big problem.  But not to worry, that’s why we have zoning ordinances, building codes, designers, plan checkers, and progress inspections.  Right?  What could possibly go wrong?

As with seemingly many problems we have here in New Mexico, the fire marshal-building official destructive mash-ups are largely of our own making.  This starts at the state level.  New Mexico uses a (mostly, but that’s another whole article) coordinated system of building codes based on the International system of model codes.  One of the goals of the International model code system is smooth coordination between the many and various chapters of the code.  The goal of smooth coordination between the fire chapters of the code and the rest of the codes is so important that the administrative chapter of BOTH codes say:

When multiple model codes are adopted in a jurisdiction it is important for the adopting authority to evaluate the provisions in each code document and determine how and by which agency(ies) they will be enforced. It is important, therefore, to understand that where technical provisions are duplicated in multiple model documents that enforcement duties must be clearly assigned by the local adopting jurisdiction.

 Of course, that’s how it should work.  Now let’s talk about how it really works in NM.  By state law the Construction Industries Division, as part of our governor’s executive branch, is charged with adopting statewide minimum building codes, along with administering those codes – All EXCEPT the Fire Code.  The Fire code is under the purview of the Public Regulatory Commission’s State Fire Marshal’s office.  Everybody knows it isn’t a good idea to have two chiefs in charge of the same things, which is what the model code adoption instruction noted above is trying to avoid. 

Ok, we can see how the situation is a bit off track now, with two different state agencies enforcing details of construction.

 Next problem -  Which code is in force?  As contractors know our codes change over time, and newer and older versions of the same code can be different; sometimes significantly different.  So the best situation here would be that that both of these agencies are at least using the same edition of the code.  Here?  Nope.  The two agencies at the state level often adopt and enforce different versions.  Right now the State Fire Marshal is using the 2003 International Fire Code and CID is using the using the 2015 version.

All public building plans must go to CID for checking (except in Albuquerque, which is also another story for another article).  We all know it’s better to debate over a set of plans than to debate over a finished structure.  In regard to the State Fire Marshal and CID, we would hope that each of them would review plans and work out any differences between themselves and the contractor while everything is on paper.  Most of the time, this is what actually happens, and even though the codes are a somewhat different, things get worked out.  Most of the time.  But the success of this process is very dependent on the staff of the two agencies maintaining a close working relationship and shared goals.  As of this writing both agencies have undergone rapid changes in management during recent years.  Without going into too much detail here I will report that the current situation is far from ideal.

Let’s move on to the local level.  CID governing law dictates that the state building codes are the minimum for all jurisdictions in NM, which tends to keep things pretty much the same statewide.  There is no such matching law for fire codes.  Which means local governments are free to adopt and enforce whatever fire code they want to, whether or not they match the statewide code or the local building code.  At the local level codes are adopted by ordinance.  Too few local governing bodies take care to make sure their construction codes and fire codes match up.  I can’t locate a current compilation, but such a list from a couple years ago was shocking in the diversity of fire codes and versions in force in various communities across the state.  Very few of them were coordinated to match up with the building codes. 

Are you thinking of renovating a historic commercial building in a small community in NM?  You can try using the Historical Buildings chapter of the International Building Codes, which should help you a lot.  But – when it comes to the fire code you will probably find a quagmire awaiting you.  Hope you have the city counselors and local legislators on speed dial.

Right about now you are probably thinking “somebody should do something about this!”  In fact NMHBA and several legislators, notably Rep. Rebecca Dow of TorC in the recent past, have created and promoted legislation to help sort all this out.  These bills haven’t even gotten a good start before they were killed off.  Sometimes here in New Mexico we are our own worst enemy.

Coordination between the International Building and Fire Codes

Because the coordination of technical provisions is one of the benefits of adopting the ICC family of model codes, users will find the ICC codes to be a very flexible set of model documents. To accomplish this flexibility some technical provisions are duplicated in some of the model code documents. While the International Codes are provided as a comprehensive set of model codes for the built environment, documents are occasionally adopted as a stand-alone regulation. When one of the model documents is adopted as the basis of a stand-alone code, that code should provide a complete package of requirements with enforcement assigned to the entity for which the adoption is being made.

The model codes can also be adopted as a family of complementary codes. When adopted together there should be no conflict of any of the technical provisions. When multiple model codes are adopted in a jurisdiction it is important for the adopting authority to evaluate the provisions in each code document and determine how and by which agency(ies) they will be enforced. It is important, therefore, to understand that where technical provisions are duplicated in multiple model documents that enforcement duties must be clearly assigned by the local adopting jurisdiction. ICC remains committed to providing state-of-the-art model code documents that, when adopted locally, will reduce the cost to government of code adoption and enforcement and protect the public health, safety and welfare.

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