Aug 2012

Codes and Standards

What is a Standard? What is a Code? Why do they change so much? If they change, are we protected properly with the old standard we designed to?


Codes are consensus documents that are revised every three years. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the International Code Council (ICC) are the only two remaining model fire and building code publishers in the USA.

The NFPA Building code is NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code. Currently there is a 2012 Edition and the original edition was 2009. There are 55 chapters and appendices in NFPA 5000.

The ICC publishes the International Building Code (IBC) and the International Fire Code (IFC). The IBC is a compilation of three prior codes in different geographic regions of the USA: the Building Officials Code Administrators International (BOCA), which was used for the East Coast; the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI) which was used in the southeast; and the International Conference of Building Officials (ICB) which was used in the Midwest and the West Coast.

The BOCA, SBBCCI and ICB groups decided to combine their efforts and in 1994 the ICC was formed to develop codes that would have no regional limitations. The year 2000 was the first year the IBC and IFC were published.

State governments can adopt and edit model codes as they see fit. For example, California adopts a code one year after they are issued. Local municipalities in California can adopt the code one year after the State’s adoption. Legislation, fire codes and buildings codes are adopted by state. That’s a lot of information to collect, which is why we’ve put together a summary.

Codes are enforceable by law; however, there is little enforcement as code officials usually visit the site once to gather the certificate of occupancy and rarely do they visit again. Codes are usually less conservative in design and safety factors compared to recognized standards such as FM Global and NFPA.


Standards are consensus documents such as NFPA, ANSI, UL and Factory Mutual (FM) Global. Typically, these standards are referenced by the codes and can be adopted into a code and can become mandatory. Some standards can be voluntarily adopted as best management practices.

Update cycles vary by the organization. For example FM Global updates their standards as necessary. The popular FM Global standards such as Data Sheet 7-29, Ignitable Liquid Storage in Portable Containers and Data Sheet 8-9, Storage of Class 1, 2, 3, 4 and Plastic Commodities have been updated recently (changed considerably) almost on an annual basis. FM Global standards are written by scientists and loss prevention engineers and are mostly based on loss history and tests conducted and their test labs. Typically, FM Global standards are the most conservative in the property loss prevention industry.

NFPA standards are updated on a three year cycle. The NFPA is an organization comprising a cross section of professionals in the Property Loss Prevention field. All NFPA standards are written by balanced, volunteer technical committees of highly qualified experts. Committee members represent fields such as automatic sprinkler contractors, property insurance representatives, insurance brokers, manufacturers, fire protection engineers, fire service officials and building code / sub-code officials.

In most cases, FM Global is a more conservative standard than NFPA.

Some of the critical protection standards in the fire protection industry have a history of change. The NFPA and FM Global protection standards change at a minimum of every three years. As engineers, how do we apply a standard if it changes so often? If a standard was applied in 2009 and changes in 2012, does that mean the new standard takes precedence and all designs before 2009 are inadequate? All tough questions – and that is where the engineer needs to use engineering judgment.

One problem in our industry is the lack of consistency and the multitude of changes that we see in our standards. We are all for improved protection in our field, but why so much change? Are all automatic sprinkler protection design criteria found in the two most popular standards NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems and FM Global Data Sheet 8-9, Storage of Class 1, 2, 3, 4 and Plastic Commodities based on fire tests? They should be! That would be evidence of a pure prescriptive standard, but should require no change unless new technology is applied.

Performance based standards have received some traction these past few years because of the lack of confidence in some of our standards that constantly change. Performance based standards also fill the gaps where there are no prescriptive based standards.

Codes are a minimum design and rarely enforced at the local level. NFPA and FM Global provide detailed prescriptive based standards that will enhance the protection of your facility. To gain a better understanding of the differences between FM Global and NFPA standards and Codes, contact Risk Logic.

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