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Evolution of Fire Protection Codes Research Paper


The development of fire protection codes can be traced back to Rome in 64 AD, where fireproof building materials were first used. This is the first fire protection code known to man. Currently, fire fighters employ sophisticated technologies which greatly enhance fire disaster management.

The development of modern fire protection codes is as a result of response to catastrophic fires rather than in anticipation of such fires. Regardless of these developments, success in fire management seems elusive due to a number of factors. The greatest hindrance towards successful fire disaster management is noncompliance with existing fire protection codes.

From the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 to the Station Nightclub Fire in 2003, investigations reports are consistent; business owners largely ignore basic fire protection and building codes. Additionally, the investigators report that disaster response time has gradually been reduced due to the improvements made on the fire alarms system.

Despite such developments reduction in response time, noncompliance with fire protection codes hinders effective managemt of fire disasters. Regardless of the fact that fire management has improved tremendously, new challenges continue to face fire disaster management. Such challenges include fire started by non traditional causes such terror attacks such the 9/11. This requires fire disaster managers to continuously evaluate the effectiveness of existing fire protection codes..

Fire disasters have led to some of the most horrific property damage and loss of human life. Recurrent fires disasters have led to gradual changes, amendment and improvements on fire protection codes. However, these gradual changes have not led to achievement of success in management of fire disasters.

With regards to the findings in this research paper, the following hypothesis seems relevant: despite the gradual improvements made to fire protection codes, noncompliance and the challenge of dynamic nature of fire disasters continue to hinder the attainment of successful fire disaster management practices. From this hypothesis, questions arise on why successful fire disaster management is elusive. To answer these questions, it is imperative to evaluate the circumstances that have led to evolution of fire protection codes.

Fire protection and building codes

The management of fire disasters evolved from the use of rudimentary methods in ancient Europe to sophisticated methods employed in management of fire disasters today. The result of such gradual development is evolution of a complex life and property safety codes. Generally, life safety codes are developed to minimize or totally eliminate the loss of human life as well as damage to property in case of a major outbreak of fire.

Traditional fire protection codes mainly addressed a wide range of issues concerned with management of fire disasters. Such issues range from the ability of materials used in construction to withstand and prevent spreading of fire, adequate means of exit as well as the use of fire protection tools such as smoke detectors and alarms. Additionally, the evolution of fire protection codes incorporates proper planning procedures as well as tenancy elements.

These allow quick evacuation of people in case of fire emergencies. While the development of detection and prevention methods as well as quick response systems help to significantly minimize the effects of fire, disaster managers emphasize on absolute compliance with existing fire protection codes. In this regard, compliance with fire protection codes greatly rely on latest technological advancements combined with historic codes.

This is aimed at improving disaster management practices. It is imperative to state that with time, NFPA has successful separated building codes from fire protection codes, both of which combine to ensure improved efficiency in management of fire disasters.

While NFPA building codes aim at enhancing the building architecture to avert a major fire disaster, fire protection codes aim at enhancing early warning, response, fire detection and prevention, preventing fire from spreading and evacuation of victims (Alderson, Artim and Allen 1, 2).

The origin of fire protection code and building regulation

Even though there is little documented evidence on the origin of modern fire protection codes, NFPA codes trace their origin from 19th century Europe. Evidence indicate that the earliest known fire protection methods were used in 64 AD Rome after the great Roman fire, which gutted Rome and left a trail of devastating effects on both human life and property. As a result, Emperor Nero instructed the Roman architects to develop building regulations, mainly focused on the building materials.

As a result, Roman buildings had to be built with fireproof materials. Thus, Rome was rebuild using fire proof building materials. This is first recorded case in the application of scientific principles in enhancing safety in buildings. The fact that there is no previous mention of building and fire protection codes implies that prior to 64 AD there was no effort to manage fire disasters professionally (Cote n.pagn).

There are no records of any improvements on fire protection codes between 64 AD and the 17th century. This is largely attributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. It isn’t until the renaissance that any major improvement is done. Existing records show consistency with these assertions since it is only after the great London fire that improvements on fire prevention standards developed in 64 AD Rome is done.

In 1666, the Great London Fire gutted London destroying more than 80 % of the City as well as resulting to massive loss of life. In response to the fire, architects in London adopted the standards developed in 64 AD Rome, with minor improvements made. Other than building the outer walls with fire resistance materials such as bricks and stones, house partitioning was also done with fireproof materials.

This indicates that houses made in 17th century England had improved ability to withstand fire than those build in 64 AD Rome. Additionally, the Great London fire spurred the development of fire suppression techniques. As such, hand-pumper fire apparatus, the first fire prevention equipment to use water, was developed.

Hand-pumper fire apparatus was a heavy hand drawn water carrier that sprayed water over a fire, thus extinguishing it. Thus, before the industrial revolution, the only recorded use of fire prevention codes involved the use of fire resistance building materials combined with the use of hand-pumper fire apparatus (Cote n.pagn).

The advent of the industrial revolution in 18th century England marked tremendous developments in fire protection designs. This was necessitated by numerous industrial fires which gutted most of the new industries in London. To avert the loss of lives and property, records indicate that concrete, steel and hardened rock were the primary building materials.

Other than strengthening buildings, engineers at the time combined these three materials and provided English engineers with suitable solution to prevent rampant industrial fires. Additionally, to enhance the effectiveness of fire protection codes in 18th century England, the first public fire department was formed, underground water mains were installed as well as ready to use fire hydrants.

Moreover, between 18th century and early 19th century, fire protection codes mainly focused on specific buildings and the contents therein. This new approach seemed to have been necessitated by the existence of numerous industries, each having unique industrial processes as well as materials under storage.

This approach however, gained prominence in the later stages of 19th century after the outbreak of numerous fires within London’s paper and textile industries. Due to poor storage of paper and lint debris and waste, disaster managers faced a new challenge not possible to manage using fire protection methods existing at the time. As such, engineers developed the first ever recorded fixed fire suppression system.

This involved the use of manually operated water pipes. However, the hazard posed to fire fighters using manually operated water pipes gave rise to the idea of automatic water sprinklers. This is one of the most useful innovations in fire protection engineering ever developed (Cote n.pagn).

The growth of fire protection codes

As mentioned earlier, NFPA fire protection codes borrow heavily from those developed in ancient Europe, especially Rome and London. Additionally modern fire protection codes are not only developed in response to occurrence of major fires. Some of the most vital fire protection codes have been developed out of critical thinking. For instance, a meeting held in Boston in 1895 involving several parties affected by fire disasters led to the development of improved fire protection code.

These authorities included insurance companies, municipal authorities, engineers, property owner and businessmen as well as property insurers. In this meeting, extensive discussions were held, the outcomes of which was the development of Americas fire protection codes. Most significantly, businessmen and property owners adopted automatic water sprinklers as a significant fire protection technique.

The adoption of water sprinklers came as a result of increased pressure from property underwriters who felt that they were loosing a lot of money from fire disasters. As a result, underwriters realized that by involving engineers and business owner in active management of fire disasters, not only would the risks be evenly spread but also losses minimized.

As such, underwriters required engineers, business owners as well as local authorities to take more responsibility in managing and prevention of fires by installing automatic water sprinklers. Within this period, the National Fire Protection Association, NFPA was formed and mandated with the responsibility of overseeing fire protection activities within the entire country.

European influence in America fire prevention methods was rekindled in 1904 when a London fire insurer, John Smith joined NFPA membership. Such a move is perceived as the first effort in building consensus on the use of science based fire protection codes (NFPA 1 to 3).

There are notable improvements in fire protection codes for the period leading up to the 20th century. It is imperative to note that before the 20th century, fire protection codes focused on managing and suppressing fires, with little effort made to prevent the occurrence of major fires.

This implies that, before the 20th century, the concept of fire prevention was largely perceived as any effort assisting fire fighters to prevent and suppress fires. However, the beginning of the 20th century marked a critical period in the evolution of fire protection codes in America.

From this period onwards the concept of fire prevention assumed a different perspective. In March 25 1911, a fierce fire broke out in The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory located in New York. As a result of this fire, 146 garment workers lost their lives instantly and hundred others fatally injured. Additionally, property worth millions of dollars was destroyed. The damage resulting from The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire seems negligible compared to previous fires such as the great London fire and the great Roman fire.

However, the rise of human rights activism especially concerning the plight of workers magnified the need to improve fire protection methods in factories. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire attracted the attention of not only the state and federal authorities but also human rights activists, scholars as well as labor unions. This contributed to the significance that this fire had towards the evolution of fire protection codes (NYCOSH 1).

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire exposed various failures of not only the fire protection codes but also building codes existing at the time. As mentioned earlier, prior to this catastrophic event, NFPA’s concept of fire prevention focused on fire suppression rather than fire prevention. Additionally, the condition at The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory reveals lack of precautionary and fire disaster management measures.

It is assumed that the fire started as a result of a cigarette stump dumped in garbage heap containing two months accumulation of garment waste. While smoking was prohibited inside the factory, most of the workers were known to sneak in cigarettes and smoke during while working. This indicates noncompliance by both the workers and company owners.

Moreover, the accumulation of two months worth of flammable garment waste portrays noncompliance and ignorance of fire hazards on the part of the company’s administration. As a result of The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the Fire Prevention Act of 1911 was drafted and enacted. The Act enabled the setting up of the factory investigation commission whose primary focus was improvement of fire protection techniques, routine safety inspection and the general improvement of factory conditions (NYCOSH 2).

Even though previous fire protection codes required that buildings be fitted with automatic fire sprinklers, the Fire Prevention Act of 1911 made it mandatory for all factory buildings to be fitted with automatic sprinklers. Additionally, the Act made it mandatory for regular maintenance and inspection of fire protection mechanisms within factories and other public buildings.

Investigators reports indicate that most of the 146 deaths from The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred due to lack of an alarm system within the building. At the time of the fire, an office telephone was the only means of raising public alarm incase of a disaster. However, Fire Prevention Act of 1911 required that all factories be fitted with a working alarm system.

With regards the existing building architecture at the time of the fire, the NFPA code for means of egress required that all buildings have safe and prompt escape routes for occupants in case of a major disaster, all clearly marked with exit signs readable in heavy smoke. However, despite the presence of adequate doors for worker to use as exits, company owners had made the exit inaccessible by locking all doors during working hours.

Additionally, the stairways and safety exits were made of flammable materials. As a result, they crumbled under fire making exit impossible. However, as required by the Fire Prevention Act of 1911, NFPA building codes made it mandatory for all buildings to have exits made of fireproof materials. Additionally, not only should buildings have safe and adequate means of egress but also easily accessible as well as allow for prompt escape from the building (Gerber 2 to 4).

After The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, fire disaster managemt was almost obscured by the two world wars. However, within this period, there were significant improvements on fire alarm systems. During this period of time, the fire alarm systems improved from a simple bell with a thermostat connected to water flow switches to sophisticated fire and smoke detectors.

However, one of the most historic fires in the US history, the Coconut Groove Night Club Fire which occurred in 1942, casts doubts on efforts by business owners to comply with exiting fire protection codes. While the building had stairways and walls made of nonflammable materials, the Coconut Groove Night Club had not complied with exit requirements. After The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, NFPA required that engineers provide adequate and prompt emergency exit routes.

However, the analysis of the conditions prior to Coconut Groove Night Club Fire indicate no adequate and prompt exist routes available. Investigators found only one revolving door as the only means of exit. Additionally, investigators found that few escapees used toilet windows and a concealed back door to escape. Moreover, the use of highly flammable decoration materials aided the quick spread of the fire.

Even though the alarm system worked well and alerted the fire response team in due time, investigators report that more than 300 lives would have been saved if club owners had completely complied with existing safety codes, especially on the provision of adequate means of exit (Moulton 5 to 8).

As a result of the Coconut Groove Night Club Fire, NFPA amended the its building codes that had been developed after the infamous Iroquois Theater fire of 1903 (which had banned the use of flammable decorations in public buildings).

NFPA amendments required two separates means of egress, in form of swinging doors that swings with the crowd as opposed to against the crowd. NFPA also required revolving doors to be flanked by swinging doors as well as adequate rails to provide support and prevent people from falling over each other (Moulton 13 to 16).

30 years after the Coconut Groove Night Club Fire business owners had not fully complied with NFPA fire protection code and building standards. In 1977, a wild fire burned Beverly Hills Super Club, and with it more than 160 patrons and workers. The construction of Beverly Hills Super Club took many years to complete.

The club’s walls, stairways, roof and floors were made of noncombustible materials such as steel and concrete bricks. However, interior decoration was done using plywood, lumber, wood and drapery, all highly combustible materials. Additionally, investigators found water pipes as the only available form of fire protection at the time of the event. Engineers had not installed automatic sprinklers, alarm systems or standpipes.

Despite having eight means of exit, many people died as a result of inadequate exit arrangements, overcrowding, use of flammable building materials, lack of fire sprinklers and alarms, as well as delayed discovery and response of the fire outbreak. As a result of such failures, NFPA 1981 amendments categorized night clubs as places of assembly occupancy.

In addition, NFPA amendment required place of assembly occupancy holding 300 people installed with automatic sprinklers as well as voice message enabled alarm systems. Such an alarm would be connected to the local fire station and thus reduce response time (Duval 8 to 16).

Yet, despite NFPA’s requirements, later fires expose ignorance of NFPA building and fire protection codes. In 2003, the Station Nightclub Fire exposed widespread ignorance of NFPA building and fire protection codes. Investigators found that engineers had used combustible materials in the construction of the Station Nightclub, including interior decorations. Additionally, egress arrangements largely violated NFPA building codes.

Despite having illuminated exit signs only few outward swinging exit doors were available. Moreover, an obstructing rail corridor ran against the main exit making quick escape impossible. With regards to fire protection, investigators found portable fire extinguishers instead of automatic water sprinklers. The club also had been installed with working alarm systems as well as heat and smoke detectors, yet not connected to local fire stations.

As a result of the Station Nightclub Fire, NFPA code 255 required building materials to be tested for fire propagation abilities. As such, Class A materials, which have no ability to propagate fires, were highly recommended for use in assembly occupancy buildings which hold more than 300 people.

Additionally, NFPA 255 code banned the use of pyrotechnics in places of assembly occupancy as well as construction of obstruction free exits. This is in addition to the expansion of the main exit point to accommodate at least two-thirds of the total occupancy load.

Places for assembly occupancy were also required to have trained crowd control managers at the ratio of 1:250, to aid quick exit during emergencies. Since all previous cases involve violations of NFPA building and fire protection codes, NFPA 2008 amendment made it a felony for business owners to violate these codes. Additionally, the amendment empowered access to buildings for fire safety inspectors at anytime (Duval 24 to 32).

The Coconut Groove Night Club Fire spurred extensive investigations, the result of which is the evolution of performance based fire protection designs. This approach was motivated by peculiar findings at the scene of The Coconut Groove Night Club Fire, in which most of the fire burned the roofs and upper parts of the walls, while leaving much of the floor and fallen chairs totally undamaged. Investigators found very high air temperatures inside The Coconut Groove Night Club due to overcrowding.

Additionally, the combination of flammable alcohol fumes hovering over the crowd fueled the fire. These findings by NFPA investigators corroborate assertions by doctors who responded to the emergency that many people succumbed to inhaling hot toxic air and related respiratory problems (Beller and Sapochetti 86 to 92). As result, NFPA required that public buildings have proper ventilation as well as standby respiratory protective equipment (Commission for Occupational Safety and Health 13).

Personal protective equipment and their effects

By 1930s, records indicate the impossibility of fighting fires from inside a burning building due to lack of personal protective equipment, PPE. However, as Hasenmeier (n.pag) explains the earliest known PPE was a leather helmet used by fire fighters in the 1830s. However, this type of clothing did not insulate fire fighters from extreme heat conditions, and thus less effective.

Events at The Coconut Groove Night Club Fire highlighted the need for improved protective fire fighting equipment, especially to protect fire fighters from heat stress and intoxication.

This assertion corroborates FEMA‘s findings on cases such as 1990 Sedgwick County fire, the 1999 Santa Barbara fire, California wild forest Fire in 1990 and 1997 La Cima Fire, which indicates that almost half of fire fighters fatalities are as a result of heat stress, intoxication and exertion, emanating from bearing much weight from PPEs especially clothing, during fire fighting events (FEMA 6 to 10, 26 to 28).

As a result of these fires, fire protection codes have been amended to incorporate the use of appropriate PPE to protect fire fighters. Fire protection codes require fire fighters to be equipped with adequate PPEs such as helmets, boots, overalls, gloves, inhalers, face masks among others. NFPA requires that these equipments be made from fire and heat resistant materials. The main purpose is to allow fire fighters to enter burning buildings and extinguish fire from inside.

However, as evidenced from 1990 Sedgwick County and other fires, fire and heat resistant clothing has negative effects on fire fighters. Fire fighters are not able to loose heat through the natural heat loss mechanism. In strong heat conditions, much heat is trapped inside the cloths and not lost to the surrounding atmosphere. Thus, the fire fighters easily succumb to heat stress.

Therefore, NFPA’s “Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting” requires all fire fighter to use PPE’s that meets all thermal regulations as well as minimum weight requirements. However, in non-fire events, such clothing seems unable to facilitate normal body heat loss since the cloths are made of non-breathable moisture and heavy thermal materials, which increases body temperatures to dangerous levels.

Thus, NFPA 2000 and 2007 amendments require limited exposure to extreme heat conditions combined with regular interval rotation of fire fighters during fire fighting events. Additionally, NFPA 2000 and 2007 amendments demand the manufacture of PPEs with material that has high total heat loss value to minimize the chances of heat stress (FEMA 30).


The elusive success in management of fire disasters should however, not take anything away from improvements made to fire protection codes. Valuable improvements have been made to traditional fire protection methods resulting to sophisticated fire protection codes. However, success in the management of fire seems elusive due to the combination of noncompliance and the challenge of complexity and dynamic nature of fires disasters.

The evolution of fire protection codes and the use of latest technologies significantly improve combating major fires. However, fire disaster managers continue to face the new challenges that cannot be addressed through already existing codes. Such challenges include the threat of terrorism and fires that might start as a result of such causes as terror attacks.

Additionally, each fire occurs under unique conditions and thus needs unique solutions to combat. This makes the development of new fire protection codes before a fire breaks out a near impossibility. Therefore, the management of fire disasters is a continuous process with no concrete solutions.

Works Cited

Alderson Caroline, Nick Artim and Rick Allen. Fire Safety Retrofitting. n.d. Web.

Beller, Doug and Jennifer Sapochetti. “Searching For Answers To The Cocoanut Grove Fire Of 1942”. NFPA Journal (2000): 86 – 92. Web.

Commission for Occupational Safety and Health. Codes of Practice First Aid Facilities and Services Workplace Amenities and Facilities Personal Protective Clothing and Equipment. 2002. Web.

Cote, Arthur. History of Fire Protection Engineering. Fire Engineering. 2011. Web.

Duval, Robert. NFPA case studies: nightclub fires. NFPA. 2006. Web.

FEMA. U.S. Fire Administration. Emergency Incident Rehabilitation. 2008. Web. Gerber, James. Fire Prevention in the Wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911: the Role of Fire Chief Edward Croker. n.d. Web.

Hasenmeier, Paul. The History of Firefighter Personal Protective Equipment. Fire Engineering. 2008. Web.

Moulton, Robert. “Cocoanut Grove Night Club Fire Boston, MA November 28, 1942” NFPA Journal. (2000): 5-16. Web.

NFPA. History of NFPA Codes and standards-making systems. n.d. Web.

NYCOSH. Don’t mourn –organize: Lessons from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. 2011. Web.

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