When is a Code not a Code?

As I speak with students and fellow instructors across the country one of the most common areas of confusion for students is the whole topic of codes. What is a code? How does it differ from a standard? How do I know that I have to follow it? When is a code just a guideline?

The easiest place to begin this discussion is to understand the difference between a standard and a code. A standard can best be described as a consensus document developed to formalize a policy or procedure for how a product or service should perform, function or operate. A code can best be described as a document adopted into law by a regulatory or governing body establishing how a product or service shall perform, function or operate.

As you can see there is significant similarity between the two, which is clearly part of the reason for the confusion.

When is a standard a code?

Our industry is filled with standards, developed by groups such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the Security Industry Association (SIA), the Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA) and the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA). Collectively these organizations have authored hundreds, if not thousands, of standards that have a direct impact upon the work we perform on a daily basis. Some of the more familiar standards from these groups, to name a few, include: NFPA 72 – National Fire Alarm Code; NFPA 70 – National Electrical Code; UL 217 – Standard for Single and Multiple Station Smoke Alarms; ANSI/SIA CP-01 - Control Panel Standard - Features for False Alarm Reduction; and many more. Many of these documents are named so as to imply that they are a code. But remember, a standard only becomes a code when a regulatory or governing body adopts it as the law in their respective jurisdictions.

In most cases the various standards listed above are not actually voted into law by the regulatory/governing body. Instead those organizations typically enact some form of building code for their jurisdiction. Keep in mind this can be established at the local municipal level or at the county or statewide level.

The most common building codes adopted across the U.S. are those developed by the International Code Council (ICC). The ICC develops codes for the building community (International Building Code – IBC), the fire community (International Fire Code), and for all of the various construction trades, (electrical, plumbing, etc.) as well as for residential construction (International Residential Code – IRC).

Your particular state may adopt the consensus version of these standards, or may adopt only various portions and even include state specific variations which only apply in that state. Once the state has enacted their version of these various building codes, the remaining standards mentioned above can become codes, if they are “referenced” in the adopted building code.

An example of this would be if your state adopts the 2009 International Building Code/International Fire Code. Included in each of these documents are “references” to requirements for how a fire alarm system shall be installed, “in accordance with NFPA 72.” In fact, one of the Appendixes in the ICC code books is a list of all referenced codes and standards.

Once referenced in the enacted code, the referenced requirements become part of the law in that state. Continuing our scenario from above, within NFPA 72, there are references to specific characteristics of the various fire alarm devices – and it “references” various UL standards – and they also then become part of the law.

While we have only briefly touched on all of the various aspects of this topic, I cannot stress enough the importance of every alarm/low voltage contractor having copies of their local or state building code, the referenced NFPA 72 and NFPA 70 versions in their library.

Dale R. Eller serves the NBFAA as their Director of Education and Standards. A 25+ year industry veteran, Eller’s firm ITZ Solutions! provides consulting, training and management services to the NBFAA, PBFAA, PaFED, NYBFAA, Installation Quality Certification Program and WISE.