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Code Trade-offs: A Problem, Not a Solution

In 1984, the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry reprinted a letter to the editor of Dallas Morning News titled: “In Dallas, TX, the Move to Rely on Sprinklers for Fire Protection as an Acceptable ‘Trade Off’ Comes Under Question.” Nearly three decades later, this topic remains heavily debated: Are code trade-offs a solution or a problem?

Let’s take a look at the trade-off that allows E-occupancies to have exit corridors with no fire rating when sprinklers are in place. The theory behind this allowance is shifting dollars from building compartmentation to sprinklers provides students and teachers with effective protection against fire. But taking into account the prevalence of school fires, the special challenges of emergencies in school environments, and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) statistics showing a one-in-ten failure rate for sprinklers, this trade-off is a cloaked risk. As the author of the 1984 letter to the editor said: “Trade-offs of life safety features are not justified for economic reasons if public welfare is a consideration…”

To reverse this allowance, the GICC and Primary Fire Rated Glazing Manufacturers submitted proposal E121-12 during the 2012/2013 ICC code review cycle. Although the committee disapproved the proposal, proponents are now asking the membership to revisit and adopt E121-12 “as submitted.” 

Here are a few reasons why proponents are imploring the adoption of this important code change proposal.   

Committee conclusion for disapproval of change: Fire data show current school design has one of the best safety records for life and property.

In fact, the data show:

·    There are a large number of school fires annually (an average of 6,260 structure fires between 2005 and 2009)

·    School structure fires have a significantly higher number of injuries per 1,000 fires than other non-residential occupancies

·    School fires cause millions of dollars in property damage every year

·    According to a 2010 NFPA report, sprinklers fail approximately 10 percent of the time

So much it seems for “one of the best safety records”…

Committee conclusion for disapproval of change: Adding fire-rated exit corridors would lead to a significant increase in cost without “sufficient justification.”

However, the reality is a recent report from the SSOE Group debunks the committee’s ‘convenient’ cost myth used to justify their misguided decision. The architecture firm found that the cost of adding fire-rated exit corridors to sprinklered schools was less than 2 percent of the total building costs for the three schools in the study. These are real school designs from a leading architecture firm, not some outdated model from an inexperienced consultant.

And when it comes down to it, isn’t the relatively small cost increment worth the improved protection for students and faculty?

Committee conclusion for disapproval of change: “[t]he increase in cost would not just be walls, but would also include fire-rated doors, fire dampers, etc.”

This statement suggests proponents presented data that only included the added costs of fire rating exit corridors. As one public commenter said, “The Committee misunderstood the data that was presented because it clearly included all costs necessary to completely fire rated the exit corridors of all three schools, including their walls, doors, windows, fire dampers, etc.”

Ironic we require more passive fire protection features in some other structures like government buildings or offices then we do our schools. Considering our kids and the professionals who serve these facilities, perhaps the ICC committee should rethink their phrase ‘sufficient justification’ before they vote next time.