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The Need to Recognize Fire Fighter Safety
as a Core Requirement in the
National Building Code of Canada


The images are startling: in a brand new suburban neighbourhood, a cluster of several houses is ablaze. Flames tower in the sky as fire fighters rush to the scene of this monstrous inferno. Like dominoes, adjacent houses that are just a few feet apart from each other are catching fire one after another as vinyl siding buckles and then quickly ignites. Fire fighters stretch their resources as they scramble to limit the number of homes lost or damaged, and risk entering a burning structure that was built with new, lightweight materials such as lightweight floor assemblies that are on the verge of collapse not even 10 minutes into the fire.

This is the new reality in Canada. When fire strikes a home in a newly-constructed neighborhood, it’s not just one home that’s lost anymore – it’s four, or six, or even more. This was the case in Edmonton, Alberta in July, 2007, when a $25 million blaze destroyed a large condominium under construction and nine other homes. Other cities, such as Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary, have seen similar scenes of mass destruction in newly-constructed residential developments.

The questions must be asked: how can the incidence of these fires be decreased? What are the rules and regulations when it comes to minimum construction requirements, and who decides them? And, importantly, how can stakeholders such as fire fighters gain effective participation in the development of the rules governing residential construction and properly raise concerns about their safety?

The surprising answer is that for all intents and purposes, they can’t, because of the way Canada’s National Building Code (NBC) is written and administered. The NBC is administered by the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes (CCBFC) which oversees the work of nine committees and numerous working groups that involve as many as 300 participants. The CCBFC is connected to the National Research Council, an agency of the federal government that is overseen by Industry Canada, a federal government department.

Fire safety has always been an important component in the National Building Code. But advances in construction technology and in the development of lightweight materials have occurred quickly, and in 2005, a switch was made to objective-based codes. The fact that first responder safety is not a functional requirement under the current 2005 edition of the National Building Code means that designers and builders don’t have to consider it in their planning and construction. It also means that fire fighter safety cannot be the basis of a proposed amendment to the National Building Code, because it does not match any of the stated objectives.

The expanded use of lightweight building materials and construction techniques has been a major concern for fire fighters across North America. Scientific testing has shown that lightweight materials such as engineered floor assemblies used in new homes typically fail much faster than traditional flooring construction, which places fire fighters in direct danger when conducting interior search and rescue in residential dwellings.

Additionally, there is no requirement in the National Building Code to consider fire safety of exterior cladding such as vinyl siding, even when dwellings are in close proximity. The larger magnitude fire that results when multiple dwellings are involved results in greater risks to fire fighter safety, and stretches fire fighter resources especially as they must race to protect exposed structures in addition to combating existing fires.

The stated purpose of the National Building Code is to specify requirements and criteria to provide a minimum acceptable level of health and safety for occupants of buildings across Canada. It is not a mandatory regulation by itself; it is a model code that becomes law when formally adopted at a provincial or territorial level. Some provinces adopt the NBC as it is, while others tailor it to meet local needs and priorities. A committee called the Provincial -Territorial Policy Advisory Committee on Codes (PTPACC) relays provincial and territorial code issues and priorities to the CCBFC.

Together, the CCBFC and PTPACC solely set National Building Code priorities and issues to be addressed. Unlike other code-writing bodies such as the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) and Underwriters’ Laboratories of Canada (ULC), the CCBFC does not adhere to Standards Council of Canada (SCC) guidelines for standards development. SCC accreditation requires a transparent process including the ability of interested parties to participate effectively, clarity with respect to the standard development process, the balancing of interests, response to public comments on draft standards and a mechanism for dispute resolution.

Writing first responder safety into the National Building Code as a core requirement and moving the NBC development process to SCC accreditation would properly enable the IAFF and other stakeholders to address critical safety issues such as the fire performance of engineered flooring and other fast-burning materials such as vinyl siding.

Changes to the National Building Code that address issues that affect fire fighter safety are the best way to ensure that all fire fighters in all provinces across Canada are equally protected from these emerging dangers.

IAFF Position

The IAFF calls on the Minister of Industry to review existing shortfalls with the National Building Code that impact fire fighter safety and to direct that first responder safety is written into the code as a core requirement in the 2010 code review cycle, as a means of enabling stakeholders to effectively pursue code amendments that are needed to improve fire fighter safety. The IAFF also calls on the Minister of Industry to direct the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes to pursue SCC accreditation for the National Building Code development process.

IAFF Arguments

Current Status

Currently, the National Building Code of Canada does not include fire fighter safety as a core requirement. As a result, homebuilders are not required to consider it when designing and building homes and stakeholder groups like the IAFF cannot use fire fighter safety as the basis for proposed building code amendments. Additionally, the code development process does not meet Standards Council of Canada guidelines. Adding first responder safety as a core requirement would enable fire fighters and other stakeholders to address emerging safety issues and SCC accreditation in the building code development process would ensure that all stakeholders have access to effective participation in an open and balanced code development process.

For more information about this issue or any other issue affecting Canada’s professional fire fighters, visit www.iaff.org/canada or contact the IAFF Canadian Office at (613) 567-8988. The International Association of Fire Fighters represents 293,000 professional fire fighters in North America, including over 20,500 in Canada. The IAFF is affiliated with the AFL-CIO and the Canadian Labour Congress.