Fire & Life Safety: Coming to Terms—An Advanced Course

May 1, 2012
Fire and life safety terms can be confusing

Along with the latest versions of our codes and standards there are some new terms we have to come to know. Some of these make sense and others seem silly. If a confusing rule is helped by the creation (or further refining) of a term, then that’s great. If a term is created when there is no demonstrated need, often that sows seeds of confusion.

The definitions of some terms are dependent on how they are used. For example, accessible in regards to equipment means: “Admitting close approach; not guarded by locked doors, elevation or other effective means.” When applied to wiring methods it means: “Capable of being removed or exposed without damaging the building structure or finish or not permanently closed in by the structure or finish of the building.” Readily accessible, when used in regards to ADA means: “Capable of being reached quickly for operation, renewal, or inspections without requiring those to whom ready access is requisite to climb over or remove obstacles or to resort to portable ladders, and so forth.”

Even the “interchangeability” of terms is defined. NFPA states that “words used in the present tense include the future; words stated in the masculine gender include the feminine and neuter; the singular number includes the plural and the plural, the singular.” Seems they thought of everything. The IBC states that even if a term isn’t defined in the building code, you must use the term as defined in the standard in which it is found: “Where terms are not defined in this code they shall have the meanings ascribed to them as in the codes.”

Classification of live/work units

A new use group classification called Live/Work Units has been carved out of the Residential occupancy type.   It is defined in the IBC as a “dwelling unit or sleeping unit in which a significant portion of the space includes a nonresidential use that is operated by the tenant”. Basically, if the unit is 3,000 square feet or less, the first/main non-residential floor may be used by no more than five additional non-resident employees. Even though Dobie Gillis lived above his dad’s grocery store in the 50s, today this ‘new’ group probably evokes a couple living above their metro art studio. This occupancy requires a manual fire alarm system be installed in the work area, smoke alarms located in the living area and the space sprinkled throughout.

What if a term is not defined in a standard or code? Where terms are not defined in the publication in which they are used, nor in the standard it references, then those terms must have the ordinarily accepted meanings such as the context implies.  It then requires that the ordinary meaning of the term be as described by Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.

Webster hasn’t even heard of Ohio’s new occupancy type. This new abbreviated term is confusing from the start since it is commonly called an “SRO” facility. Standing Room Only? No, “Sleeping Room Occupancy.” SRO is “A facility with more than five sleeping rooms that is kept, used, maintained, advertised or held out to the public as a place where each individual is provided with separate sleeping accommodations which is intended to be the permanent residence of a single occupant. SRO facilities are required to be licensed by the Ohio Fire Marshal and do not include agricultural labor camps, apartment houses, lodging houses, rooming houses or college dormitories.”

To be clear, Ohio’s new building code specifically states a SRO facility is classified as an R-2 occupancy and along with dormitories and apartment houses and similar housing that share a common egress. For some reason, although an SRO facility is not classified as a transient boarding house, hotel, or motel and thus NOT an R-1 facility, yet an SRO must “be designed and constructed to meet the R-1 criteria in this code.” Yet it isn’t an R-1.

Is this a big deal? To rectify the situation, every time the building code states the requirements for an R-1 occupancy, it now must add wording to explain that R-2 SRO facilities the actually must meet R-1 requirements. And every time a rule is stated for fire alarm and sprinkler protection for R-2 groups, an exception has been added to explain that even though a SRO facility is an R-2 group, it is exempted from R-2 requirements. Once straight in one’s mind, it is not a ‘big deal’ but it is still confusing.

This is reminiscent of where we went wrong with individual state codes in the past that caused the national code mess in the first place. Every state/municipality thought they knew better (and had different circumstances) than the rest of the country. This caused the great mish-mash of code rules and variations that brought about the adoption of a national building code. The IBC was supposed to clear up the mish-mash and bring forth an ‘everybody on the same page’ concept. Now, a mere decade or so later, Ohio has decided it has a unique occupancy that looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, but walks like a chicken. I’m calling it a turkey.