State fire safety official offers alternative to stricter fire code rules

A recent update to Vermont’s fire code started some people wondering if certain rural construction sites would be permissible — even if developers could afford to install on-site water supplies large enough to comply with the new code.

VTDigger reported on the heightened requirements on July 5.

Bob Patterson, deputy director of the state’s Division of Fire Safety, has since weighed in: If a suburban or rural site cannot fulfill the water supply requirements of the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Code, a different standard from NFPA can be used.

“We all agree that the NFPA1 water requirements are extremely high,” Patterson said, referring to the primary fire code put out by the organization. The state routinely re-adopts NFPA fire codes as they’re updated, to stay current with national standards.

“And if you need that much water, the building already is probably beyond saving anyway,” he added. “We feel that the 1142 (Standard on Water Supplies Suburban and Rural Fire Fighting) is more practical,” Patterson said.

Technically, the state’s fire prevention officers have always been able to apply the different standards in qualifying suburban and rural areas, along with a host of other regulations and guidelines for myriad circumstances, materials and site locations.

When reviewing construction or renovation permit applications, the officers only need approval from regional managers if they want to veer outside the NFPA documentation.

Patterson said that does happen, on occasion, when perhaps even the suburban and rural guidelines cannot be met. He gave the example of a building large enough to require a sprinkler system, but rural enough to not need a fire alarm.

“If you wait till somebody sees it, you’ve got a fire that’s substantially in progress,” he said.

The codes may not mandate a fire alarm, but negotiations with the local fire department may result in an agreement that, if the building were to be equipped with one, a smaller fire pond may be required. After all, Patterson pointed out, the fire department most likely would have enough warning to be on-site before the conflagration grew out of control, thereby requiring less water to fight the fire.

Such arrangements by fire officers set precedent, though, so they must receive special approval. Peer review is not necessary, on the other hand, when a fire officer simply applies one established code for another — as long as the substitution is relevant to the situation.

In East Montpelier, construction of a new elementary school will benefit from the flexibility.

Designers were informed in the permitting process that they would have to add a large fire pond to meet the strict NFPA 1 minimum water supply. But fire prevention officer Stan Baranowski has since substituted the suburban and rural standards, Patterson said.

The school will still need to have a fire pond, but a much smaller one.

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Hilary NilesHilary Niles

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