If you’re the owner, manager, or developer of a commercial building, it’s likely that you’re aware of the NFPA Life Safety Code, otherwise known as NFPA 101. If you’re not aware of it or don’t know much about it, you really should make it a priority to familiarize yourself with it, and this article can help get you started!

What is NFPA?

The National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA, is a non-profit organization devoted to “the elimination of death, injury, property, and economic loss due to fire, electrical, and related hazards.” Since its founding in 1896, NFPA has been working to fulfill their mission: “to help save lives and reduce loss with information, knowledge, and passion.” As a leading global advocate for fire safety and fire protection, they work diligently by conducting research, training fire professionals, educating the public, and putting their expertise behind consensus codes and standards.

Their advocacy for safety and eagerness to partner with other groups and individuals who share their passion has allowed them to build an amazing intelligence network that further supports their goals. NFPA is committed to leading the charge of keeping our world as safe as possible by building a shared intelligence community comprised of the professionals and experts whose industries and daily jobs affect the safety of others, such as engineers, electricians, and first responders.

NFPA was formed by a group of insurance companies in 1896 for the purpose of standardizing fire sprinkler systems, which were a very recent development at that time. The need for such standardization arose when the reliability and functionality of fire sprinklers began to be called into question because there were so many different ways they were being installed. When the group of concerned citizens first met to discuss the differences in sprinkler designs and the various methods of sprinkler installations, they determined there to be at least nine “radically different” standards in place for sprinkler spacing and pipe size, just within 100 miles of their city. Not only was this creating an installation nightmare, but it was also compromising the safety of the people and property the sprinklers were meant to protect. As a result, the group created their first safety document, which eventually became “NFPA 13 – Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems”.

Although NFPA is a trade association based in the United States, they also have some international members in their ranks, which is reportedly over 60,000 members strong. Presently, their most valuable contribution to the fire protection industry is the copyrighted standards and codes they develop and maintain privately and without traditional commercial funding, fueled by their ongoing consensus research and professional industry partnerships.

The Life Safety Code, Also Known as NFPA 101

“The Life Safety Code is the most widely used source for strategies to protect people based on building construction, protection, and occupancy features that minimize the effects of fire and related hazards. Unique in the field, it is the only document that covers life safety in both new and existing structures.”

– NFPA.org

It may seem a bit confusing, but the Life Safety Code isn’t actually a legal instrument; it is not published as legal code and it has absolutely zero statutory authority. However, the NFPA deliberately developed, trademarked, copyrighted, and published the Life Safety Code as a consensus standard that is meant to be used by local governments and adopted into law or legal regulation by any state or local government entities, and/or federal regulatory agencies.

NFPA 101 is made up of over 300 consensus codes and standards, and is systematically revised every three to five years in revision cycles that begin twice per year. The development process for standards is managed by approximately 260 Technical Committees made up of approximately 8,880 volunteers serving on Technical Committees. The NFPA Technical Committees represent a balanced variety of interested parties, stakeholders, councils, and industries. NFPA’s standards development process is “full consensus”, meaning that anyone can participate and receive equal and fair treatment and respect, and the NFPA takes great pride in this particular part of the standards development process!

Tragic Origins

The Life Safety Code was born quite literally from the ashes of some of the most catastrophic and deadly fires in American history. As early as 1913, one of the NFPA’s 200+ committees was tasked exclusively with studying major fires, especially ones that caused loss of life, and investigating and analyzing the direct causes of the loss of lives in order to determine what, if anything, could have prevented the deaths and injuries sustained from those fires. This led to publications such as, “Outside Stairs for Fire Exits” and “Safeguarding Factory Workers from Fire”, published in 1916 and 1918 respectively.

This research and diligence continued for years, resulting in many more publications throughout the 20’s and 30’s. These efforts were slowly improving fire safety of existing and planned buildings by presenting code standards for building exits and fire escapes. The language of these publications was intended for building contractors, not legal legislation, however, that changed in 1948. Following a string of horrendous fires between 1942 and 1946, such as the Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta and the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub fire in Boston, the NFPA publication known as “Building Exits Code” began being utilized legally, so NFPA revised the code so that the verbiage within was clear and concise for legal statutes. This was the beginning of the publication that eventually came to be known as NFPA 101, or the Life Safety Code.

Current Iteration

Presently, the Life Safety Code publication is made up of 43 chapters covering every aspect of fire safety, from construction materials and occupancy restrictions to means of egress and fire alarm system design. It provides consideration for all manners of facility usage, and covers both pre-existing buildings as well as new construction.

Simply put, it’s the most widely-used and universally-accepted source of codes, guidelines, legal allowances, and strategies for fire safety; it’s absolutely crucial for engineers, architects, building owners/managers/administrators, and AHJs.

Utilization and Application of NFPA 101: Life Safety Code

NFPA 101 is adopted as legal regulations, codes, or restrictions by local jurisdictions throughout the United States, either in part or in its entirety. When any section of code or code revision is legally adopted, compliance is required from all buildings and facilities within that jurisdiction. Pre-existing structures typically have a determined amount of time to meet compliance, or in some cases, the jurisdictional authority can permit outdated features that were previously compliant to be allowed under certain conditions. The application of and adherence to the adopted sections of NFPA 101 vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, because the local law may amend the code however they see fit. When adopted as regulation or code, a jurisdiction may enforce code via local zoning boards, zoning inspectors, building inspectors, fire departments, fire marshals, or other jurisdictional authorities.

In its current form, NFPA 101 is integrated and coordinated with hundreds of other standards and codes, including National Electrical Code, OSHA, plumbing codes, energy codes, mechanical codes, fire codes, and more. Regardless of its status or level of adoption as legal regulations, it provides an extremely valuable resource for insurance companies to evaluate hazards, set rates, determine liability, and assess compliance after an accident occurs. For that reason, many code standards are sponsored by insurance companies.

To find out if any or all of NFPA 101 is being legally enforced in your area, you can reach out to your local jurisdictional authorities such as your state fire marshal and any agency that approves or regulates building codes. Don’t forget to include agencies that approve or regulate buildings for specific uses, like hospitals and schools, for example.

Bring on a Life Safety Expert

The Life Safety Code is meticulously detailed, but because of this, those who are unfamiliar with it may have a difficult time reading through it or searching it for specific answers. The NFPA provides some basic guidance and quick answers to common questions on their website, but if you’re doing renovation or construction, having a life safety expert is critical.

A life safety expert knows and understands all of your applicable state, local, and industry-based codes in detail, and can work with you to design and implement building features that keep your building safely in compliance with all your AHJs. Consider reaching out to us if you have questions regarding life safety requirements in your area; our team of NICET-certified experts can design code-compliant life safety systems that fit your budget and meet all your needs.