NFPA World Safety Conference to Tackle Big Code Items

Big happenings are expected at this year's upcoming National Fire Protection Assn. World Safety Conference and Exposition, June 6–10. For starters, the conference and show will take place in Las Vegas for the first time. This summer's show also marks the consolidation of NFPA's two annual programs into one major event.

By Jim Crockett, Editor-in-Chief May 1, 2005

Big happenings are expected at this year’s upcoming National Fire Protection Assn. World Safety Conference and Exposition, June 6—10. For starters, the conference and show will take place in Las Vegas for the first time. This summer’s show also marks the consolidation of NFPA’s two annual programs into one major event.

“We’re putting all our resources into this meeting, as we’ve done away with the fall conference,” says Al Sears, the conference’s key planner. “It’s going to have a whole new look and we really are hoping to make a bang.”

The exhibition, for example, will be the largest ever, and there will be more than 140 educational sessions.

NFPA members will also be voting on revisions to four major standards: NFPA 90A, Installation of Air Conditioning and Ventilating Systems ; NFPA 1, Uniform Fire Code ; NFPA 101, Life Safety Code ; and a second edition of NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code .

The first standard is getting the most attention due to a somewhat controversial call for electrical cabling in ceiling air plenums to be fire-rated. According to Bob Vondrasek, NFPA’s vice president, Codes and Standards Operation, because it related to air-conditioning and ventilation systems, the matter was shifted to the 90A committee from the NEC Committee to determine if cabling is indeed a fire hazard in such spaces.

“It’s been an interesting debate, and we’ve received hundreds of comments,” says Vondrasek.

Following an anticipated debate at the upcoming conference and vote of the attending membership, the matter will go before the Standards Council for consideration in July. If approved, the revised standard could be published as early as September.

The other major document NFPA is eager to get feedback on is NFPA 5000. After major setbacks in California and Phoenix, where the city decided at the 11th hour to switch from NFPA 5000 to the International Building Code (see NFPA Makes Push on Coasts… ), Vondrasek is hopeful the second edition, which he expects the NFPA membership to approve, will fare much better with its new revisions.

“Historically, any new code, especially in an area where there are established codes, has a long pull,” says Vondrasek.

NFPA 5000 new and improved

Thanks to the many comments the organization has received, NFPA is implementing a number of revisions to its national building code. Some of the improvements, according to Vondrasek, are in its height and area tables; requirements for nightclubs and similar occupancies; and sprinkler requirements for one- and two-family occupancies. But NFPA 5000’s strengths, including its consensus-based process and its unamended reference to industry-accepted codes, like NFPA 101, ASHRAE 90.1 and ASCE 7, should serve it well, Vondrasek believes. “If you think back, the first edition of the IBC also was not as embraced as the second edition, which got much more traction,” he says. “I think this second edition will definitely get a second look by many jurisdictions.”

Another highlight of this year’s conference will be keynote speakers Dr. William Grosshandler and Dr. Shyam Sunder of NIST, who will report on the organization’s latest finding regarding the World Trade Center’s destruction. Without getting into the details of the presentation, Vondrasek expects the session to generate a lot of discussion on fire-protection strategies for high-rise buildings. On a more practical level, NFPA has certainly been considering more generalized best practice strategies based on the findings that have surfaced from the report to date. “It’s hard, if not impossible, to deal with the impact of a plane crashing into a building,” says Vondrasek. “Some high-rises do incorporate such protective design measures, as do certain critical facilities like nuclear power plants. But to design every building to such a standard would be expensive and probably not practical.”

A new high-rise life-safety future?

At the same time, there are measures, such as better egress requirements, separation of stairwells and aids to fire-fighting, that can go a long way in any high-rise fire or incident.

Elevators, in Vondrasek’s mind, is one area he believes the community should be focusing on. “High-rise buildings are unique, and firefighters face many challenges—just getting their gear up the stairs for one. In the case of WTC it took minutes just to get from one floor to the next,” he says.

The good news, Vondrasek reports, is that the American Society of Mechanical Engineer’s elevator committee is presently exploring the notion of hardening elevators to the point that firefighters would be able to use dedicated cars to get to fires or employ them to evacuate people. “Such a measure would certainly change tactics and provide another safety measure in tall buildings,” he says.

Clearly, there are challenges, such as dealing with proper ventilation in the elevator shafts (see Change is in the Air ), and of course, cost. But it’s something he thinks is well worth it.

“Twenty years ago, I recall thinking about what advances we needed, and better elevators was one,” says Vondrasek. “Firefighters often will use elevators in fires if they feel they’re safe. Why not ensure that they’re safe?”