You may recall Abbott and Costello’s famous baseball comedy bit. Abbott tells Costello the names and positions of the persons who play on his baseball team: “Who’s on first, what’s on second and I don’t know is on third.” This routine established the standard for frustration and confusion surrounding terms and words not understood by both parties. In the fire alarm business, some confuse the terms “codes” and “standards.” This month’s column will work to sort out the differences between the two and provide an answer for who really is on first.

Defining the differences
The NFPA publishes and sells over 850 standards plus many other technical books, booklets and safety videos. Yet, what NFPA publishes most are standards. NFPA 72 is one of the standards, even though its title is National Fire Alarm Code©. The same goes for The National Electrical Code© and the Life Safety Code©. Even if they call it a code, it’s still a standard until it is legally adopted by a local or state government as part of their building or fire code.

Volunteers from nine different well-defined groups help write and revise NFPA’s standards. Revisions are usually undertaken every three years, otherwise known as the “code cycle.”  During every code cycle each standard is fine-tuned with the help of the public by soliciting suggestions and comments on the standard as written and also on any proposed changes. NFPA states they use a consensus method for deciding what changes are to be made. Any code changes are supposed to be based on scientific facts and professional judgment and not hearsay or opinions.

The International Code Council (ICC) is comprised of members from all the former regional code groups (BOCA, SBBC, ICBO) who thought it best if there could exist only one national building code and fire code. The ICC voting members are also volunteers and are made up of the same groups of people that comprise the majority membership of NFPA--namely code officials. The ICC publishes a set of 11 building and fire codes. These true codes reference hundreds of standards published by various organizations, including 46 published by NFPA. It is common for only a part of a standard to be adopted into a code. The International Building Code (IBC) only requires compliance with one rule from NFPA 101, Life Safety Code©. Since code and standard language may differ or conflict, it would be correct to think that the ICC building/fire code language requires compliance with only the applicable parts of a particular standard – be it one of NFPA’s or that of another standard-writing body. The ICC also has a public comment period, just like NFPA, for anyone to provide input on any proposed changes. Anyone can become an ICC member by paying dues, but only code officials vote on the final code language to be adopted.

NFPA markets their building and fire code set as NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code® and NFPA 1, The Uniform Fire Code®. Any state or city that adopts the NFPA building and fire code set will be adopting (buying) all their codes and standards from one association/company, NFPA. (NFPA’s 101, Life Safety Code® primarily addresses issues concerning egress and is often adopted by states or municipalities as an add-on to either the IBC or the NFPA 5000 and is widely used in the healthcare industry).

Almost 30 states have adopted ICC’s IBC and almost as many have adopted their International Fire Code, placing them far ahead NFPA in the adoption race. Only a few states have adopted NFPA’s 5000 as their Building Code. In fact, California reversed their adoption of NFPA’s building code and instead adopted the IBC. New York City has decided to adopt the ICC’s codes as well. Time will tell if it will be cost-effective for NFPA to publish a set of codes for which there is a small market. Time will also tell if a state’s adoption of the NFPA set will be worth the cost and confusion to be the odd-ball among their neighbors.

Greg Kessinger, SET, CFPS, can be reached at or

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