Unless you're tuned in as an AHJ yourself, you've likely made a few "code calls" to a code authority and asked a litany of questions to make sure your project's design meets the local requirements.
I'm not even sure if the term "code call" is a common term, but I've heard it enough that I suspect you already know what I'm talking about regardless of where you call home.
I enjoy this process now, but I didn't always. Fresh out of school I'm pretty sure I was visibly shaking the time I first made a code call. I was sure that within seconds my cover would be blown and it would be all too obvious that I had no idea what I was talking about. Despite my awkwardness (I make a good engineer, right??) nothing went sour and since then I've slowly learned and repeated many many times.
There was even one of my favorite code calls that I made about an elementary school to coordinate local fire alarm requirements. It was only right after the call late on a Friday afternoon that I found out that the fire marshal I just spoke with was hired onto our team and was starting the following Monday. They say fire protection is a small world, right? He turned out to be one of the most knowledgeable people I know and one of my favorite people to work alongside.
The Joys & Pains of Code Calls
Code calls also come in many different flavors.
Sometimes I'm just shocked by how friendly and helpful code authorities are. I once made a call at 15 minutes till 5pm on a Friday to a small town in Arkansas, thinking I would just leave a voicemail. After my questions, I asked if the department conducted flow tests, and while he said they did, he apologized that because of a prior commitment he couldn't do it then but would be happy to do it first thing Monday morning. I almost fell out of my chair. Very helpful and caring people in this field.
On the contrary, sometimes the hardest part about a code call is just finding the right person to speak with who is actually responsible for plan review of fire protection systems and getting a few minutes of their time. Not to pick on New York City because I love the people there and speak with a handful of you regularly, but if you're trying to get a hold of someone to verify or coordinate a few particulars of your system... well... good luck! Maybe it's because they knew I can't stand the Yankees.
I also sometimes get AHJs who simply say all they do is 'per code' and they aren't interested in talking specifics. The whole point of the call is filling in the gaps where a code or standard does not direct but rather defers decisions to the AHJ.
Want a siamese fire department connection with national thread, or a Storz-type? Either way is code compliant. As an engineer I can make either way work.
Is a wall-mounted FDC permissible, or does it need to be freestanding? Either location is compliant, but NFPA 13 says the location needs to be coordinated with the AHJ.
What I've gathered and refined over hundreds of code calls is my cheatsheet I currently use today. Just like the design cheatsheet, if you're using the Toolkit you can quickly highlight categories for your record keeping.
What's even better about this tool, though, is that you can quickly fill in the content (while on the call) and then right after save as a PDF and email to the AHJ themselves. Want them to have a record of the call and a quick way to verify your notes? Great! You now have a logged code call and the AHJ has an opportunity to review your notes.
The process of calling, taking notes, and composing the email used to take close to an hour total. This tool alone brings that total time to about 15-20 minutes. That's three-quarters of an hour you could save on every job you make the call!
A Radical Big-Picture Concept
One of my longer big-picture ideas to help the industry is to beta test and, if successful, open up a larger code-call database. I envision this as a database that brings designers and code authorities together to make local requirements clear and help jurisdictions get installations that reflect their preferences and mandates.
Want to know what hydraulic safety factor is required for sprinkler systems in Springfield, Illinois? Great - a quick query in the database reveals that and a clean list of other local requirements.
Want to know what type and location for FDC's that Tucson, Arizona requires? Great, we'd have that too.
This would clearly have a huge value for designers and engineers - but what I'm really curious about is how to incentivize code authorities to take the survey or help us populate the database. If you're an AHJ, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or comment below about whether you'd be open to the idea of making your local requirements public in a database.
I would have to think that AHJ input would only help local authorities get installations that match their needs - but I also know that getting action out of anyone is only possible with mutual benefit and sometimes incentives.
Just like the Design Cheatsheet posted a couple weeks ago, this form is integrated into the updated version of the MeyerFire Toolkit ready for download today. Below is a blank and filled-in template.
If you're already a Toolkit user, you can download the code call cheatsheet today by logging in here. If you're not using the Toolkit, you might consider joining in on what's quickly becoming what some consider the best tool for fire sprinkler design under $200. See more about it here.
The Questions on My List
The current code call checklist I use today has had items added and scratched over years of finding out what's important and what questions always get the same answers.
That being said, there's no real one defined list that matches everyone's preferences. What questions do you ask that you feel are important to the design that's not explicit in code? Comment below.
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I had several long standing global concerns when I was in grade school.
It wasn't general anxiety or depression-related, but I certainly felt as though the weight of worldwide issues hung squarely on my small shoulders.
At the time in school there was a major focus on the environment (I would imagine there likely still is now). It wasn't just a hard-sell on earth day, it was the disappearance of rain forests, erosion due to overbuilding, overpopulation, oil spills, our reluctance to recycle, and the overzealous use of oil that would undoubtedly cause our planet irrevocable damage. It was our generation's tasks to make right what generations before had begun.
The gravity of the concern didn't feel just environmental either.
New media opened the front door to war, disease, and a myriad of reasons to be pessimistic about the future and the world our kids will someday inherit.
Now years later, as a father, I've heard similar sentiments prevail; "how could someone bring a child into the world today?" "I can't imagine how to parent with all the (fill in the blank) going on today." "Will there even be X around when our kids are old?"
I'm not going to pretend that everything is sunshine and roses for everyone. There are major geopolitical issues and wars and famine and poverty and disease. A great day for me could also be the worst day for someone else.
What I am hear to say is that when you adjust your focus from the immediate present and look out a just little more distant - there is so much promise in the world. And by so much promise I mean that the planet is getting healthier, cleaner, and the quality of human life is improving in ways that we've never seen before in human history.
There has actually never been a better time to bring a child into the world.
In Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler's 2012 bestseller "Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think", an author and engineer review historical data and trends that show how technology is achieving exponential improvements in computing, energy, and medicine.
This bestselling book details many eye-opening reasons for optimism with the trends our societies are experiencing.
These independent technology-based innovations have and will continue to drive major improvements to clean water access, food, energy, health care, education, and other facets of a first world standard of living for the planet's future nine billion people.
Not only does mainstream media not cover the positive trends in the world today, but the future of our planet is looking more urbanized, education, cleaner, and healthier.
Speaking of population, the United Nations recently released a DESA report projecting nearly 10 billion people in 2050 and over 11.2 billion people in 2100. Since this latest update there's been fairly widespread disagreement about these figures, with many researchers speaking out out about the projections that hinge on one major flaw: population growth rates are declining. Some countries have already peaked in population and are now in decline without immigration. Many expect that we, as a planet, will never reach more than 10 billion people.
This isn't news to you if you live in Europe or Japan, of course, but in the U.S. many of us seem unaware of this major global trend. Research shows that with urbanization and better education, couples have less children. This speaks to major positive impacts in using less resources and shaping a cleaner planet in the future.
Trends in Fire Protection
That's great Joe, but what does this have to do with fire protection?
First, as is my underlying theme in the whole website - engineering is going to save the world. I'm sure my wife would also suggest that scientists deserve some credit too, but this isn't her blog.
Second, don't be discouraged if you feel that the quality of our line of work is in freefall, that no one is entering the industry, or that we've lost all sense of pride in what we do. Big-picture trends in fire protection are very positive, with death rates due to fire steadily decreasing per capita over the last century. The unrelenting overall trend is that we are doing something right as fewer people per capita are dying now from building fires.
Fire fatalities have been and continue to decrease with advancements in code adherence, our knowledge of fire protection, and shared education of the subject. Just the last 30 years across Europe and the US there's been major improvements in fire safety:
Global trends in fire deaths have decreased over the last quarter-century as shown in this US FEMA study.
Third, if you've ever felt similarly barraged by the negativity in the media or fears that we're only one step away from global catastrophe, I would wholeheartedly encourage you to read or listen to the book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think.
There's no summary that I could put together that I feel would do the book justice.
Of the fifty-plus books I read last year this was without-a-doubt the most impactful. [On a side note, if you're wondering how I average 50 books a year - I cheat and listen on audible.com. You can actually get the book Abundance and another book, for free, with a free trial here]
If you've read Abundance, comment below on your impression. If not, I'd highly encourage you to read it and let me know what you think (shoot me an email at email@example.com). I promise the read will be worth your time.
If you've enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to these free weekly posts here.
Here's a few other book reviews:
Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903
Fahrenheit 451 & The Thirst For Knowledge
Triangle: The FIre That Changed America
Diamandis, Peter H. Abundance: the Future Is Better than You Think. Simon & Schuster, 2015.
Fire Death Rate Trends: An International Perspective. FEMA, July 2011, www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/statistics/v12i8.pdf.
United Nations Population Division | Department of Economic and Social Affairs. United Nations, www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/trends/population-prospects.asp.
Determining fire flow can be a tricky subject. This week I'm breaking down one common method of determining fire flow requirements and hopefully exposing some myths about the process.
Not an Exact Science
First, determining the exact amount of water required to manually suppress a fire is dependent upon so many variables. The amount of water used could depend on the building size, hazard, outdoor conditions, speed of fire growth, fire department response time, whether the building is protected by sprinklers, and on and on.
The methods used to calculate fire flow are different methods at estimating the amount of water required to manually suppress a fire. It is not an exact science.
What is Fire Flow?
I'll start by what fire flow is not. Fire Flow is not the volume of water required for the fire sprinkler system. I couldn't count the number of projects where Fire Flow has been assumed to be sprinkler-related.
Fire Flow is formally defined as the "flow rate of a water supply, measured at 20 psi (138 kPa), that is available for fire fighting." (IFC 200-2018 Appendix B Section B102)
Fire flow is used to determine the quality of a water supply to an area. It's used as an aid to determine pipe size and arrangements to delivery water to a specific area.
Fire Flow is important for emergency response at it is the total capacity of the system that the fire department has available for use in response to a fire.
How Is Required Fire Flow Determined?
In short - it depends.
There are many methods for determining fire flow. The most common cited in US circles include the Insurance Services Office (ISO) Method, Iowa State Method, and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) Method. At least a dozen other methods exist (for more on these, the Fire Protection Research Foundation provides great analysis in Evaluation of Fire Flow Methodologies research paper).
The International Fire Code (IFC) offers Appendix material that provides guidance for determining the required fire flow, which is based on the ISO Method. It is not a mandated code requirement unless a jurisdiction adopts the Appendix.
Many jurisdictions I've worked with do not have an ordinance that adopts the appendix, but when asked they are typically open to using the IFC Appendix B method of determining fire flow. The International Fire Code, which is widely adopted in the US, only requires that an approved water supply "capable of supplying the required fire flow" be provided to buildings.
This process will be explored in more detail here.
1. Determine Baseline Fire Flow
The first step in this overall determination of water supply to a site is to determine the required fire flow.
Using the IFC Method, Appendix B has a reference table that stipulates a minimum fire flow and flow duration based upon building size and construction type (2000-2012 Table B105.1, 2015-2018 Table B105.1(2)).
2. Reductions & Increases
Once a baseline value for flow and duration is taken from the table, it can be reduced based on the presence of sprinkler system.
Section B105 details the adjustments that are available for buildings with a sprinkler system. A reduction of up to 75% can be permitted for buildings with a fire sprinkler system.
It's important to note that up through the 2012 edition of the International Fire Code, a reduction of fire flow had to be approved, meaning the AHJ must agree on the reduction. This may not make a difference if a jurisdiction hasn't adopted the appendix and the entire calculation has to be approved anyways, but in the case where Appendix B is adopted and you're under IFC 2000 through 2012, you'll need AHJ buy-in to use the reduction.
The 2015 and 2018 edition of IFC removed the approval necessity for sprinkler flow reductions.
As part of this process the Fire Chief is also authorized to decrease the required fire flow, based on building isolation or impracticality. Alternatively, the Fire Chief is also authorized to increase based on unusual susceptibility for the facility. These stipulations come with Section B103 of Appendix B (all editions).
Fire Flow is used to quantify the available water supply for manual firefighting operation.
3. Verify Provided Fire Flow
The best way to verify fire flow for a location is to conduct a flow test at the site itself. This of course can be difficult to impossible for new-construction projects on virgin sites.
For developed areas or building expansions, this may not be difficult to accomplish.
I have a current project we're working on that is a major building expansion. Fire flow needed to be assessed based on the new expanded building and whether a single 8-inch feed would still meet the minimum requirements. A flow test on the site itself confirmed that we are just short of required fire flow which prompted a healthy discussion with the AHJ.
4. Calculate from Flow Test to Site (if necessary)
Sometimes a flow test can't be conducted on the site itself.
When this is the case, a hydraulic calculation can be run between the water supply source (nearby flow test, a water tower, reservoir, or pump) and the project site to estimate what the available fire flow will be. This calculation incorporates the pressure loss of the pipe network as water is constricted between a source and a project site. The best way to confirm actual fire flow (in my opinion) is to verify with a flow test once any extension is installed.
Easy Tools for Fire Flow & Water Supply Analysis
There's a new tool in the arsenal around here that directly addresses fire flow requirements.
It's the Fire Flow Calculator that's now a part of the Toolkit. If you're already a Toolkit subscriber, download it today.
The Fire Flow Calculator uses the IFC method based on your project parameters to quickly grab the baseline fire flow and duration, and make adjustments for sprinkler protection. Now you have extremely quick access to determine required fire flow, and the documentation to support your process.
This is a tool I'm happy to debut and have used with great client feedback.
On a side note, Toolkit subscribers also now have access to last week's Design Checklist with user-provided feedback. The download update includes both tools. Give them a download and let me know what you think!
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Joseph Meyer, PE, is a Fire Protection Engineer in St. Louis, Missouri. See bio on About page.