Fire Safety Regulations: NAVIGATING THE MAZE

Jennifer C. Patterson

Even the most diligent college administrator may find his or her campus lacks some facets of fire safety. With a dizzying array of codes, laws, and ordinances, it is difficult to know if your campus is in compliance.

The risks associated with a campus fire are obvious. Although any building fire can be harrowing for an administrator, “a residence hall fire is the worst case,” Janice Abraham, president of education insurance company United Educators in Chevy Chase, Md., said.

Fires generally pose three major risks, Abraham said. First is the loss of life or injury. Second is loss of property. Third is loss of revenue resulting from the potential need to shut down a building or even send students home. Fire-safety regulations are designed to minimize these risks.

Experts consulted for this article agree that the first step toward reaching and maintaining compliance is a call to your local fire-safety professional. This may be your campus fire-safety officer, your municipal fire department, or your state agency. The authority that has jurisdiction over your campus should be happy to help you assess your campus and plan necessary upgrades. Sam Husoe, executive director of the Committee for Fire-safe Dwellings, emphasizes the importance of drawing on the services of experts. “Talk to your local or state fire marshal. He will be aware of the various layers of the onion,” he said.

No matter which organization has jurisdiction over your campus, it is likely that the authority has used the Life Safety Code–one of the most common fire-safety codes–as the basis for its regulations. The Life Safety Code, produced by the National Fire Prevention Association, codifies certain minimum requirements for the design, operation, and maintenance of buildings. Requirements fall into two basic categories. First, the code defines hazards, describes possible exit strategies, and discusses equipment to help control and detect fires. Second, the code contains requirements specific to a building’s use and occupancy total. The code functions either in tandem with local regulations or alone in jurisdictions that do not have a comparable building code on the books. More information can be obtained from the NFPA Web site at The Life Safety Code is designed to complement the many building codes in effect across the country. Three of the most common building codes that include fire safety provisions are the BOCA Code, the Uniform Building Code, and the Standard Building Code.

The BOCA National Building Code is a publication of the Building Officers and Code Administrators International. It is used largely in Middle Atlantic states. The Uniform Building Code, from the International Conference of Building Officials, is the primary building code in Western states. The Standard Code from the Southern Building Code Congress International is used throughout the South. Your builder or general contractor will be able to advise you about the code in your area. (For more information, consult,, and

Building codes are typically designed to be models that can be adopted in whole or in part by local jurisdictions. They also may be altered to address specific challenges in a particular locality. For example, in some parts of California that are especially prone to fires, roofs made of wood or wood products are prohibited.

When contemplating new construction or a renovation, Husoe suggests that campus administrators draw upon the experts before beginning the job. “In the initial stages, have a technical advisory committee meeting with all affected parties, including the local fire marshal and building contractor,” he said. “This will save time, money, and frustration,” he said. Don’t adjourn this meeting until all parties are satisfied that the new or renovated building meets all applicable fire safety regulations.

Laws and Pending Legislation

Building and fire codes are only one piece of the puzzle. States, cities, and other jurisdictions can give codes the force of law, or they can go above and beyond the codes to enact individual fire-safety laws and regulations. Though fire regulations remain largely a local endeavor, the federal government has begun to adopt legislation that encourages improved fire safety on college campuses without mandating specific safety measures. These acts typically tie federal funding to compliance with certain safety standards, providing a powerful incentive to implement these measures.

The Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act was adopted by the U.S. Congress in 1990 to ensure fire safety in public places. The act requires hard-wired smoke detectors in each room and an automatic sprinkler system in buildings of more than three floors.

“We wanted to do something to improve fire safety without usurping the power of the states, so we work through the power of the purse,” John Ottoson, project officer for the Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act, said.

Because the act requires that buildings that house federal employees must comply with the act and that federally funded meetings must be held in such buildings, colleges and universities are indirectly covered by the act. This interpretation has been upheld by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s general counsel, who confirmed that facilities that are used for activities that are even partially funded by federal money must comply with the act.

College campuses are popular spots for meetings and conferences, so many of them will be affected by the provisions of this act. In order to appear on the government list of approved facilities that are eligible to host federally funded events, the school need only submit an application to be approved by its state project officer, who is often the state fire marshal. This officer will certify that the campus is in compliance and is eligible to appear on the list. (For more information or to download an application, click on

In response to the fires at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1996 and Seton Hall in South Orange, N.J., in 2000, U.S. senators John Edwards of North Carolina and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey have proposed the College Fire Prevention Act. “There are too many dorms that aren’t equipped with these life-saving [sprinklers],” Michael Briggs, Edwards’ press secretary, said. The act would allow the U.S. Department of Education to provide grants totaling $100 million per year for the next five years to help colleges and universities install sprinkler systems in student residences.

Colleges would be required to provide matching funds to qualify for the grants.

Briggs said he believes this act is one way that the federal government can help colleges increase the safety of their cherished older buildings without superceding local regulations. “This [act] doesn’t require anyone to do anything, but it [is one way] the federal government can help,” he said. At press time, the act was in committee.

At the state level, fire regulations affecting colleges are handled differently from state to state. For example, Husoe, who has worked with the City of Long Beach and Orange County fire departments, explained that jurisdiction over California college buildings varies with college type. “There is a special section in the California constitution that exempts [the University of California system] from jurisdiction”, he said, leaving the schools in the U.C. system on their own. Other colleges in the state, however, will be covered by state fire regulations, Husoe said. California is unique in its complexity, but each state adds its own wrinkle to the fabric of fire-safety regulations.

Local regulations that may be adopted by a locality in addition to or in place of state laws add another layer of complexity. These regulations will vary from area to area and even from building type to building type. Again, a call to local authorities is a critical first step in any building project.

Building codes, pending legislation, and existing regulations can create quite a maze to navigate. That is why administrators should not hesitate to call upon the fire experts in their area.

Whether you are constructing a new building, renovating an older one, or contemplating a campus-wide safety check, your best weapon is information.

Jennifer C. Patterson is an independent writer based in Centerville, Ohio, who specializes in higher education and technology issues. She holds a master’s degree in college student personnel services from Miami University and has worked as a registrar, academic adviser, admission counselor, financial aid counselor, and instructor. She can be reached at

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