Let’s Talk Fire Codes and the Future of Fire Science
In 2001, an explosion rocked a UC Irvine Chemistry lab, injuring three people and causing extensive damage. The explosion and resulting fire destroyed years of research and cost the university an estimated $10 million in damage. The blast occurred as an avid young graduate student was purifying benzene in a solvent purification still, and the residue of the process, metallic sodium, caught fire and caused the explosion. The safety issues were compounded by the fact that the lab was on the second floor of a six-story physical science building next door to a lab housing a nuclear reactor. Safety training is a valuable resource, yet it is not enough to prevent accidents in the lab. The lab environment itself must have built-in safety in case of fire and other accidents, in order to prevent human injury and physical damage to the facilities. Welcome to the realm of fire codes. This is the first post in a series of six posts on Fire Code compliance and Reporting.
This Year Marks the 40th Anniversary of Fire Codes
Even before this accident occurred at UC Irvine in 2001, fire codes were in place as part of a national building code system. In fact, this year marks the anniversary of the 1973 America Burns fire report, which brought attention to fire safety in the home and fire deaths. The report emphasized the importance of local responsibility for fires, but the important part was the call for national oversight and guidelines to help and protect the local fire fighters. This was also around the time the smoke detector hit the market, which added momentum to an expanding field of fire protection engineering programs across the country.
To see more about the impact of the America Burns report, check out this clip of David Lucht of Worchester Polytechnic Institute.
What Are Fire Codes Anyway?
Fire codes are rules designed to protect us from fire hazards, which seems simple enough. However, simplicity is thrown out the window when you consider the dozens of regulatory organizations, hundreds of code updates and diverse lab settings that one may encounter. Fire codes require specific storage, handling and disposal activities of chemicals. There is a call to report hazardous materials on-site and their location in the building. This information helps the responding fire department contain the fire. Not only will inaccurate reporting information threaten lives, it also means that insurance will not cover damages caused by inaction on the part of the lab. Luckily there are cost-effective chemical inventory management solutions and established industry best practices to help lab managers and EH&S professionals do fantastic compliance.
The Future of Fire Codes
The code is constantly changing to reflect new research and safety solutions. In fact, the International Fire Code Hearing in April 2013 heard over 400 proposals to change the fire code. So keep an eye out for code updates which may include a total rewrite of photovoltaic operations, removal of abandoned wiring in building spaces, and coordinating the NFPA Haz Mat list with the Fire Code. Not to worry though, you can find a chemical inventory system that will keep track of these updates for you.
Fire protection engineering research is the backbone of national fire codes. This science is saving lives in labs and communities around the world. While there are obstacles to today’s students pursuing advanced degrees, such as increased tuition rates, today’s students are working hard to get the most out of their education and tech advances may also expand career options right along with fire safety.
The bottom line is that accurate fire code reporting is a critical step in lab fire safety. For the last 40 years, our fire codes have evolved to respond to changes in society and advances in fire research. With all of the tools out there for chemical inventory systems, there are more ways than ever to stay on top of fire code compliance. Stay tuned for more posts from this series on Fire Code Reporting!