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U.S. Fire & Building Codes

Building and fire codes have been built, literally, on the lives of the many who perished through smoke and flame. Lessons learned at terrible cost provided incremental improvements resulting in today's codes.

Throughout human history, fire has been both friend and enemy. Controlled, fire could warm the hearth, illuminate the darkness, turn ore into metals that could be shaped and forged into tools. Uncontrolled, it could devastate fields of crops, take lives, destroy homes, and ravage entire communities. Thousands of years of hard-learned lessons have taught us how to mitigate the damage fire can cause through the enacting and enforcing of building and fire codes. One early fire, The Great Fire of Rome started July 19, 64 AD., burned for 6 days, and devastated the Roman capitol. Following the disaster, Emperor Nero created a new urban development plan: houses were to be spaced apart (no common walls), built in fire resistant material such as brick or stone, and faced by porticos on wide roads. It was one of the earliest known examples of how a "great fire" would lead to the updating or enacting of a building code.

Fire Codes in The United States of America

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Current U.S. Fire Codes
City of Chicago Fire Code
International Building Code®
International Fire Code®
New York City Fire Code
NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®
OSHA 29 CFR 1910

Fire Code standards for the municipal regions
of The City of Chicago & New York City exceed
current model code standards, in part, and are
therefore listed separately.

As the United States was settled, a patchwork of various codes came into effect across the various towns, cities, and counties. In time, it was recognized that uniformity was preferable. At least at the state level, there could be regulation and enforcement. "Best practices" could also be recognized. As this patchwork of codes began to coalesce, the best parts of earlier codes were adopted into a series of three model building codes (developed over three disparate regions - the east coast, the south, and the west coast). Since the early 1900's, these three models have been the basis for all building and fire codes in the United States. (Model codes have no actual authority, unless adopted in whole or part by a locality, such as a town, county, city, or even state). The East Coast and Midwest followed the Building Officials Code Administrators International (BOCA) National Building Code. The South and Southeast followed the Southern Building Code Congress International Standard Building Code. The West Coast followed the International Conference of Building Officials Uniform Building Code.

International Code Council Logo

By the early 1990's the importance of a single set of national model building codes led the three model code groups to join efforts and form the International Code Council (ICC). By 2000, the ICC had completed a series of model codes known as the International Codes. Among the new ICC codes are the International Building Code® which covers fire prevention as pertaining to the construction & design of new buildings, and the International Fire Code® which addresses the regulation of fire hazards in existing buildings, and the installation, testing and maintenance of fire protection in new and existing buildings. Just as the International Building Code® is a merger of the provisions of the National Building Code, Standard Building Code, and Uniform Building Code, the International Fire Code® is a merger of the provisions of the National Fire Prevention Code, the Standard Fire Prevention Code, and the Uniform Fire Code.

National Fire Protection Association Logo

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) was originally founded in 1896 by insurance companies to standardize the new market of fire sprinkler systems. Eventually it's scope grew to include all aspects of building design and construction, and was recognized worldwide for it's standards, particularly those dealing with fire fighting operations and equipment. It initially joined with the ICC to help develop the International Fire Code® but a series of disagreements led NFPA to withdraw and create a competing set of codes named the Comprehensive Consensus Codes (C3). C3 included NFPA 5000® as the central building code, and NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code® which detailed minimum requirements protecting occupants against toxic fumes, smoke, and fire in new and existing buildings.

Older U.S. Fire Codes
• BOCA National Fire Prevention Code
• SBCCI Standard Fire Prevention Code
• ICBO Uniform Fire Code

The International Fire Code® merged and updated these codes.

The development of building and fire codes in the U.S. Territories proceeded differently. For islands areas, especially in moist tropical climates, hurricanes or tropical storms, not fire, are often the most dangerous disasters. Also, many of the Territories were influenced by international (non-U.S.) regulations and codes. In some territories, only recently has the adoption of standardized codes been completed.

Today, all fifty U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and every U.S. Territory has adopted ICC model codes at the state or jurisdictional level in whole or as a basis for their building or fire codes. Thirty-Nine states have also adopted the NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®. By enforcing these codes, Fire Code Officials (usually Fire Marshals), ensure that buildings are protected, exits are accessible, extinguisher and alarm systems are working properly, and all systems and services are correctly maintained in order to provide for maximum occupant and building safety.

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