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Model Code Adoption and Development: Many Challenges Lie Ahead

The availability of the 2012 I-Codes signals the start of the code development process for the 2015 I-Codes. The first challenge facing fire chiefs and building-department administrators will be new questions from elected officials about the rationale of updating building and fire codes on a regular basis. These questions will focus on the cost of adopting the latest model codes and the impact on already strained municipal budgets.

Other challenges from elected officials may focus on reducing government regulation perceived as a burden to economic recovery. Many states are considering proposed moves to update their fire and building codes every six years or repealing safety codes altogether.

Are you prepared to answer those questions and defend the process by which your jurisdiction regularly updates and adopts its safety codes?

There are many benefits to adopting the latest model codes and standards that fire chiefs and building department administrators may need to explain to elected officials and policy makers. The most recent editions of model codes and standards include the latest in new technology, building materials and methods and incorporate energy efficiency and sustainability provisions while balancing cost and the minimum acceptable level of safety for the built environment.

The International Code Council program on replicable buildings (pdf) lays out all the economic incentives for jurisdictions that adopt the most current edition of unamended model codes. FEMA has acknowledged the value and importance of the latest model codes and standards for mitigating the effects of natural disasters on the built environment. ISO recognizes the importance of a community’s adoption of the latest, unamended codes with the Building Code Effectiveness Grading Schedule.

While initial costs may be incurred with each three-year update of building and fire codes, that expense is an investment in safety, sustainability and energy conversation that pays back at a rate of nearly four dollars for every dollar invested. Fire and building safety professionals must take on the challenge of educating our elected officials on the safety and economic benefits that accompany regular updates and adoption of the latest codes and standards.

Another significant challenge facing chiefs and administrators is new proposed legislative action that would change how states, cities and local jurisdictions review and adopt codes. When policy-makers attempt to legislate the technical aspects of these model codes, there’s a significantly increased chance of unintended consequences or reductions in fire and life safety.

The national process codes and standards are developed by has become increasingly more technical with each cycle. Code changes are often driven by scientific analysis, data and statistics—even by computer modeling. Model codes and standards are a systematic approach to safe and sustainable building-design requirements, with complicated technical provisions that are carefully correlated to minimize conflicts and work in harmony.

While the model I-Codes provide architects and engineers with options in how a building is designed and constructed, those options are still part of a systematic approach, with each requirement being an integral part of a correlated, holistic approach to safe and harmonized building design, construction and maintenance. Each code requirement is essential to ensure the model-code approach to design, construction and maintenance is retained.

The development of model codes and standards relies on technical experts who volunteer tens of thousands of hours to ensure the best consensus-based codes are procured each update cycle. It’s nearly impossible for states, cities and local jurisdictions to achieve the same level of technical review for a thorough vetting of amendments to the model codes and standards.

This is why states, cities and local jurisdictions using the model I-Codes must follow and participate in the model-code development process. Through participation, they can have input on proposed changes and learn firsthand about code changes that become part of the next model-code edition. When model codes and standards are amended through legislative action without the benefit of a thorough and transparent process, unintended consequences may occur that could be difficult and time consuming to correct.

Most states have established balanced technical boards authorized by their governing body to review, amend as necessary and adopt model codes and standards to ensure an acceptable level of safety for the built environment. These boards are best suited to thoroughly analyze the technical code requirements and make appropriate jurisdictional amendments based on the needs of their constituency and by the policy direction set by their elected officials.

Unfortunately, in some states or jurisdictions, the authority of building and fire-code review boards is being legislatively challenged or repealed. Chiefs and administrators have an opportunity to support and defend a fair and balanced approach for the technical review of fire and building safety codes. Elected officials should make policy decisions, while leaving technical details to professional code experts.

As your state, city or local jurisdiction begins the process to review and adopt new model codes and standards, are you ready to advocate for adoption and enforcement of the latest ones with only amendments technically necessary for your state or community? This may be a daunting challenge, but when fire chiefs unite with their building-official counterparts, this strong coalition can make a lasting difference in ensuring a safe and sustainable built environment.

Fire chiefs and building officials are frontline public-safety officials. By ensuring your state or community is enforcing the latest model codes and standards, you’re helping to reduce hazards in the built environment and mitigating the devastating effects of natural disasters when they strike.

If the United States is to maintain the best model codes to ensure the safety of our communities and first responders, chiefs, administrators and other code enforcement leaders must meet these challenges. Leaders must lead in defending the process that ensures adoption of the most current model codes and standards, guarantees participation by the best technical experts in the model-code development process and by providing code-enforcement personnel with the tools and support needed.

When fire chiefs and building officials work together on these challenges, we maintain the highest possible levels of safety, energy conservation and sustainability for the built environment while balancing the costs and maintaining economic incentives for resurgence in construction.

Bruce Johnson is the director of fire service activities for the International Code Council. He’s been a member of the IAFC since 2007.

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