Fire Safety Code Revisions Provide Less Protection

Families, schools and businesses across the nation may find they have less protection from fires as a result of ongoing building code revisions. Until 2000, the Southeast, Northeast and West had separate organizations that created building codes. Now, the three regions have combined to create one building code for the entire country, resulting in less protection from fire in some cities and states.

The problem with the new code involves firewalls, which have traditionally been rated in terms of“hours.” Some materials, like concrete masonry, endure the entire test with no failure using only one wall panel. Other materials get by with the same rating by passing the test using two wall panels for different parts of the standardized test. Whether a product passes the test with one wall or gets a rating with less rigorous testing involving two walls is not general public knowledge.

In the Southeast, the old codes required all firewalls to have a four-hour rating. But the newer standard requires a four-hour rating only for buildings considered to be“high hazards.” Firewalls for buildings where large groups of people gather or where businesses, schools or daycare facilities are located now require only a three-hour rating when constructed of noncombustible materials or large wooden timbers. Additionally, the new code requires only a two-hour firewall for these facilities when wood studs are used.

In the Northeast, the old codes required all firewalls to be built of noncombustible materials. Yet the new standard allows firewalls to be built of combustible materials for buildings using wood studs. It is even more critical that these walls stop the spread of fire since wood studs are combustible.

Since some requirements in the old codes are more stringent than in the new standard, this means the problem is now left up to state authorities to improve firewalls. Some, like North Carolina, already have required all firewalls be constructed of masonry, concrete, or any approved noncombustible material. Further, they have mandated that all firewalls must pass the entire standardized fire-resistance test by using only one wall panel instead of allowing two. Concerned citizens can contact their elected representatives about this at

Jerry R. Harke is a spokesman for the National Concrete Masonry Association.