Last week, The Wall Street Journal featured an in-depth article on the Grenfell Tower fire and the exterior wall panels that escalated the fire’s devastating spread. According to the article, “… the more recent use of combustible-core panels to cover multistory buildings has created a hidden danger to legions of workers, students, hospital patients and hotel guests inside the structures. A loosening of the model U.S. building code could make matters worse.”
The article notes that the ICC building code was relaxed in 2009 to allow broader use of a particular type of exterior wall covering on high-rise structures. Unfortunately, this code change is no outlier. It reflects a broader undercurrent toward more relaxed codes and standards, and it’s a trend that can jeopardize public safety.
Technical committees that we have working on the development of codes and standards are a balanced cross-section of interests all driving towards the same goal – improved safety for people and property. We encourage committees to be thorough in their evaluations of proposed changes and to be sure they are asking the right questions so that they have the information to make the best decision possible. Our committees take this responsibility seriously and we take our process seriously to ensure that everyone that has an interest has had an opportunity to have their voice heard.
In addition to proposed modifications that allow less vigorous codes and standards, we’ve increasingly witnessed states and jurisdictions removing important safety related provisions of codes because they don’t understand the extensive process that was used to arrive at the requirement. In effect, we have seen local amendment processes change from their original intent of ensuring appropriate administration of the requirements into a process where the main focus is on reducing the minimum safety requirements due to cost or outside influence. In fact, in the past, unlike today, jurisdictions that revised technical requirements did so almost exclusively to improve, not reduce, the level of safety included in their codes.
While I realize an argument for these actions around codes and standards is often cost, the reality is codes developed through the consensus process already represent the minimum level of safety. Weakening codes not only means jurisdictions miss out on the best knowledge available from research, collective wisdom and past learnings, but they compromise public safety.
All of us who diligently work each day to make the world safer from fire and other hazards must denounce these dangerous trends and vigorously support a full system of fire safety. This eco-system includes an effective policy and regulatory environment, use of latest versions of codes and referenced codes, a robust enforcement system, promoting the development of a skilled professionals to apply the codes, and educating the public and policymakers on the risks posed by fire and other hazards. The lives of those we help save in abiding by these principals is unarguably worth the effort.