Let's Work Together

All college and university campuses must work with a building official and a fire marshal to construct and operate campus facilities. In some locations, schools have their own fire and building officials delegated to them from a state agency, while other schools may need to work with state and local officials. In all cases, both positions have responsibilities for reviewing construction plans for compliance with regulatory codes and standards. Several portions of building and fire codes also have overlapping responsibilities — egress chapters as well as sprinkler and alarm systems, for example. In addition, the fire marshal reviews occupied buildings to ensure occupant safety is maintained throughout the life of the building. There are also times when a building official and fire marshal will need to work together on a campus with a large number of older buildings in order to reclassify structures based on how they have evolved and been reused for different purposes through time.

Various Views of Code Compliance
Existing buildings often pose many code compliance challenges. Older 
residence halls may now be used for office or classroom space and, while a fire official may find a code path that allows the use of the space to continue, the building official may find that there are structural loading issues that must be addressed. For reasons like this, it is important that both individuals work together.

The code review process can have several points where the design team must interact with both positions to verify that designs comply with all interpretations of applicable codes. Most design teams will also agree that because of varying interpretations it is usually beneficial to all involved in the design process to meet with representatives from the building and fire code authorities at the same time. When these two positions work together, the campus community can be assured that all permits for construction and operations are all issued.

There are many efficiencies to be realized when both of these positions operate out of the same regulatory compliance group for campus. Design teams can be assured that both staff positions agree on the approach that will be applied to the project for code review. Any differences in approach to code compliance can be worked out during the same meeting and the design team will have clear direction from both regulatory positions.

The Advantages of Sharing Space
There are benefits to having fire and building officials work out of the same office as well. The campus community is usually focused on a campus safety group as the focal point for regulatory issues. Physically locating these positions together streamlines operations so that when a call comes in it can be quickly sent to the correct individual, and if there is a need for consultation between the two positions they can quickly pull together and resolve the issue. Locating the two positions in separate departments can cause confusion and, in the regulatory field, “code shopping.”

Working as part of the same team should also allow design team questions to be answered thoroughly and with the support of both regulatory positions. Jointly locating these positions also reduces the chances that plans leave the design process with code issues unresolved. The review of plans is more complete and thorough, which should relate back to fewer if any code-related change orders on a project. Code-related issues could be identified early and then resolved earlier in the design process.

Mutual Understanding
As the building official and fire marshal gain a working understanding of the approaches each takes to code interpretation and application, they can fill in for each other during design review and site inspection. Providing a “one-stop shop” for plan reviews allows for sharing of building data, easier scheduling for consultants, sharing of support staff, and faster turnaround time for plan reviews. The ability to cover some of the site inspections will speed up the construction process. Joint inspections for underground fire system supplies; site access for emergency vehicles; temporary heating and power supplies; alarm system wiring; sprinkler piping; fire-rated assemblies; and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment are just a few of the reviews that could be covered by one individual instead of two.

In addition to plan review and site inspections, a combined office can help a campus create a set of standards that may be more stringent than adopted codes, but that better serve the campus environment. Having fire and building officials work on the development of standards together can ensure that not only is a building safely constructed, but also it is capable of being operated safely. When both officials understand why a higher standard was adopted it also helps reduce the chances that the other individual will overlook the standard.

Externally, fire and building officials can work together to help facilitate changes to codes and standards to provide a better fit for building and life safety. They can jointly approach fire prevention and building boards to present proposed modifications that will benefit the campus.

Opportunities for Professional Development
Working from the same office will provide your fire and building officials with additional professional development. As a team working together they will be a more knowledgeable staff. Projects will move along faster and any disagreements of code interpretation can take place between themselves instead of surfacing during the review process with design teams. There is a higher level of efficiency, in addition to the joint inspections previously mentioned; there is the ability to jointly procure special inspectors that can look at multiple items instead of relying on several special inspectors. In fact, there would most likely be a decrease in the need for special inspectors because building and fire staff may be able to fulfill the roles of some of them based on their backgrounds, and an increase in time available because of a decrease in duplicated services. From a design team perspective they can expect a team of regulatory staff that provides quick, accurate, and decisive application of codes to their projects.

In short, quality of plan review and inspections should improve, which leads to a more efficient application of fire and building codes across campus. These incentives alone should prove to most campuses that there is merit in organizing fire and building officials within a single regulatory department. 

Mike Halligan is the associate director of Environmental Health and Safety at the University of Utah and is responsible for Fire Prevention and Special Events Life Safety. He frequently speaks about performance-based code solutions for campus building projects, is recognized as an expert on residence hall fire safety programs, and conducts school fire prevention program audits/strategic planning. He can be reached at 801/585-9327 or at mike.halligan@ehs.utah.edu.

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