What every firefighter should know
By Jim Tidwell
There are two primary fire codes in use in the United States. The International Fire Code (IFC) is most prevalent because of its compatibility with the International Building Code, which is the most widely adopted building code in the United States. However, several states use the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) fire code, also known as NFPA 1. To ascertain the specific requirements for your jurisdiction, you need to know what code has been adopted, along with any amendments that may have been made at the state or local level. Your fire prevention division can provide this information.
Each of the codes receives significant input from the fire service and each attempts to provide adequate regulations to ensure fire departments can access buildings and necessary equipment during emergencies. The requirements include fire apparatus access and fire personnel access. Fire suppression personnel should strive to understand the requirements in their jurisdiction to operate effectively in an emergency. Important in this discussion is the fact that both organizations, the NFPA and the International Code Council (ICC), state that these model regulations are minimum requirements. As such, they should not be modified to require less access or a lower level of safety.
Apparatus Access Requirements
The theory behind the requirements in the model codes is that fire engines (pumpers) should be able to get close enough to a building or facility to deploy hoselines effectively, access fire hydrants, and access fire department connections. Missing from the codes are specific requirements intended to provide locations for truck companies (ladder trucks) to set up for rescue and ladder pipe operations. Your jurisdiction should contemplate additional policies to ensure appropriate access for aerial stream and other aerial ladder operations.
The term used in the code for the means used to reach a building or facility is “fire apparatus access roads” (ICC) or “fire access roads” (NFPA). Their meanings are, essentially, interchangeable. A fire apparatus access road is used to describe the route a fire apparatus drives from the fire station to the incident. It includes roads, streets (private and public), highways, parking, and fire lanes on private property. The term is not limited to fire lanes. Let’s look at the actual requirements.
International Fire Code
For buildings and facilities, the basic requirement is that all portions of the facility, and all points on the exterior wall of the first story of a building, must be within 150 feet of a fire apparatus access road. The measurement for the 150 feet is to be an “approved” route around the building. The term “approved” means approved by the code official of the jurisdiction, usually the fire chief (Figure 1).
The provisions of the IFC provide some flexibility to the code official and encourage the installation of sprinkler systems. For instance, the 150-foot dimension can be extended in sprinklered buildings or where topography, railroad tracks, or other factors prohibit the installation of roadways within that parameter. If the 150-foot dimension cannot be met for some reason, the code requires “an approved alternative means of fire protection.” Additional fire protection can be negotiated between the fire department and the owner in these cases.
While the code permits the reduction in access requirements as outlined above, it also provides for additional access where conditions merit. The actual code language is, “The fire code official is authorized to require more than one fire apparatus access road based on the potential for impairment of a single road by vehicle congestion, condition of terrain, climatic conditions, or other factors that could limit access.” Based on this language, the fire department may be able to justify additional access. This can also be used to gain specific aerial ladder access provisions.
To qualify as a fire department access road under the IFC, the road must include the following:
• Be at least 20 feet in width.
• Have a vertical clearance of at least 13 feet, six inches.
• Be designed to withstand the imposed load of fire apparatus.
• Be designed as an all-weather surface.
• Have a turning radius adequate to permit fire apparatus to negotiate any turns.
• Have no dead-ends greater than 150 feet without adequate turn-arounds.
• Have grades no greater than specified by the fire code official.
• Have angles of approach and departure consistent with the requirements of the fire code official.
In addition to these requirements are provisions for traffic-calming devices (such as speed humps), security gates, and other issues related to fire department access.
NFPA 1 requires fire department access roads to meet much of the same criteria as the IFC. I will focus on the differences here. One additional requirement in NFPA 1 is that the access be within 50 feet of at least one exterior door of the building. Also, the NFPA fire code is more specific when it comes to allowances for sprinkler systems. In the NFPA fire code, where NFPA 13 sprinkler systems are installed, the 150-foot criteria for access is extended to 450 feet.
Aerial Ladder Access
Because neither model code has requirements specific to aerial ladder access, your jurisdiction may want to develop a policy to address the issue. To utilize an aerial ladder for rescue operations in multistory buildings, the truck must be close enough to deploy the aerial ladder but far enough away from the building to provide the appropriate angle of repose so that the ladder is not too steep to climb or so flat it cannot reach as high as might be necessary. In some jurisdictions, the policy is to require aerial ladder access on buildings four or more stories tall; that access is described as a fire apparatus access road adjacent to 50 percent of the exterior perimeter of the building, with the proximal side of the fire lane between 20 and 40 feet from the building. This provides ample access for the aerial for rescue and master stream operations and still allows for some design flexibility for the owner. Your jurisdiction may want to explore the operational parameters of your aerial ladders and determine the most appropriate policy for your use.
Sustainable Development and Fire Department Access
As communities and corporations adopt standards intended to be environmentally friendly, one of the issues in play is the number of impermeable surfaces, including concrete and paving used for fire department access. There are several reasons builders and communities attempt to maintain landscaped areas and avoid unnecessary paving. Storm water runoff has become a significant issue. Anytime a builder creates more water runoff by replacing vegetation with paving, that water must be directed in such a way that doesn’t negatively impact properties downstream. In addition, federal requirements of the Environmental Protection Agency seek to minimize pollution from storm water washing contaminants into waterways. Added to these issues is the trend toward “walkable communities” where developers create neighborhoods intended to encourage walking and bicycling over automobile transportation. One way to create the pedestrian friendly environment is to limit streets and to make them as narrow as possible because wider streets encourage faster speeds, something that runs counter to the effort to encourage people to walk.
There are methods to accommodate these issues while maintaining reasonable fire department access. None of those methods provide the wide expanses of concrete to which we’ve become accustomed.
To avoid paving and the associated runoff, many contractors are turning to paving systems that allow grass to grow in between structural elements that will support the weight of a fire truck. These are usually composite materials with vertical structural members laced together, resulting in open space for grass to grow through. These materials, when properly installed, will support fire apparatus without the negative impact of concrete or asphalt paving. Unfortunately, when an emergency occurs, the fire department access route may be indistinguishable from the adjacent lawn. Because of this fact, it’s imperative to agree on a method of marking the access route to avoid fire apparatus veering into landscaping that won’t support the load and becoming incapacitated during an emergency. Some things to consider if these paving systems are to be used in your community include the following:
• Ensure the material will support the imposed load of your fire apparatus; this can be ascertained from the specification sheet for the material to be used.
• Permanent marking of the access route should be mandatory. Concrete curbs high enough to prevent being hidden by grass, signs on poles, or other markings are critical to making this system acceptable.
• Check the specifications for the product for maintenance requirements. It should require no more maintenance than a normal paving system.
• Monitor the installation to be sure the underlayment is compliant with the installation specifications and that the product is installed properly.
Providing fire department access to urban villages, where the community is discouraging traffic, is somewhat more difficult—but not impossible. Some things for consideration include the following:
• If streets are narrow, consider roll-down curbs with pedestrian walkways adjacent to the street. This would allow fire apparatus to use the combined width of the street and the walkway for access.
• Ensure no trees, benches, furniture, or statues obstruct the fire access.
• The walkways to be used must be constructed to support fire apparatus.
• Marking and maintenance will be issues in need of attention. Any requirements should be in writing and should not be affected by a change in ownership.
• Finally, if access is unduly difficult, even if it is code compliant, consideration could be given to requiring a cache of equipment strategically located on a large property. Hose, nozzles, self-contained breathing apparatus, and other equipment could be located within the facility but would need to be secured against unauthorized access and regularly inspected by the fire department.
Access Is Imperative
We can’t put out the fire, rescue the patient, or otherwise conduct emergency operations unless we can get to the emergency.
Code requirements for fire department access are a necessary part of the overall fire protection scheme in any community. An open mind, innovative thinking, and a clear understanding of the need for access can create alternative methods that accommodate the community’s emergency needs and the needs of the developer.
Jim Tidwell served the Fort Worth (TX) Fire Department for 30 years before retiring as the assistant chief in 2003. Since leaving the department, he has been active in the development of codes and standards that enhance public safety with a focus on firefighter safety. In addition to promoting safety through the codes, Tidwell has been active in legislative arenas in several states and the federal government. He has authored a number of books and articles on a wide variety of fire service interests.