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An overview of international fire safety legislation

When it comes to fire safety laws, regulations, standards, and other legislation, there are a plethora of considerations and interests to consider, many of which are positive, but many of which are negative. The following is a very basic overview of the mountains of laws, regulations, codes, and other documents that help–or, in some cases, hinder–firefighters in their attempts to prevent and protect against fires.

Almost every country has some form of fire safety laws. Some are comprehensive, while others are rudimentary, if not primitive. Nearly all of this law has a history as diverse as the countries in which it is implemented. In the United States, for example, the federal government has implemented significant legislation on fire safety and prevention during the last century or so. Our country, on the other hand, is quite fragmented when it comes to enacting cohesive or all-encompassing law due to its fundamental nature as a federal republic made up of fifty states. Each state, county, and municipality drafts and implements legislation specific to its own desires, requirements, and whims, which frequently collide with those of a nearby town. Many states allow you to break their laws on a local level. Furthermore, standards and codes do not originate on Capitol Hill in Washington, but rather at the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which coordinates the creation and dissemination of codes and standards related to nearly every activity in the country, including fire safety, created by more than 80 entities in the US and other countries. Many ANSI standards are cited in building codes (for example, the International Building Code (IBC) cites a number of ANSI standards developed for specific businesses, such as elevator makers).

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), as we all know, is the primary source of fire safety standards, publishing and regularly updating the bulk of regulations that serve as the foundation for national, state, and municipal law. Although the NFPA standards and codes are papers of recommended good practice rather than legislation, they serve as the foundation for practically all fire safety legislation in the United States. In the United States, a slew of additional organizations contribute to the development of fire safety law, either through documentation or by serving as approval bodies for materials, equipment, and systems, among other things. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a federal technology agency that develops and promotes standards, measurements, and technology; the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), which also develops and produces standards for legislation; and the Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. (UL) and Factory Mutual (FM), both certification agencies for systems and component certification.

All of these serve as sources for local public administrations’ specialized fire prevention regulations, such as building regulations, municipal ordinances, and so on. However, many of these requirements are met with real-world realities that frequently clash with the interests of other sectors. This is especially true when severe building rules run counter to the interests of developers or promoters. There have been far too many structures designed and constructed ostensibly in accordance with current rules only to be discovered to be subpar. For example, supposedly fire-resistant materials are sometimes discovered to be easily combustible during the cause investigation following a tragic fire or a routine inspection, detectors are discovered to be simply glued to a ceiling and thus inoperable, sprinkler heads are simply screwed into a ceiling as ornamentation, and firehose stations are mounted on walls with no piping connected.

There are as many legislative bodies as there are countries on the international stage. Each of Europe’s 46 countries has formed its own set of rules for its own territory. The European Union’s (EU) 27 member countries have consolidated much of their individual legislation and codes, often sacrificing national interests in favor of a pan-European effort toward standardization, such as making a common standard on portable fire extinguisher classifications or fire detection system and component specifications applicable across all member countries.

Extinguishing agents, smoke/flame detectors, sprinkler systems, fire-resistance qualities of materials, testing techniques, and other fire-related topics are all covered by this European standardized. Although a number of these countries have preserved numerous particular national laws and regulations, the European scenario is comparable to that of the United States. The British Standards (BS), the German Deutsches Institut für Normung (DIN), and the Spanish AENOR are all national standards and codes in these countries. On a global scale, the International Standards Organization (ISO) is a global standard-setting organization made up of 157 national bodies that provides information, goods, and services relating to property and liability risks. Individual national requirements are often met, if not exceeded, by ISO standards. Many ISO standards have a big impact on national laws and norms all around the world.

Several projects aimed at improving fire safety in Europe have arisen from various forums during the last 15 years. Most of these efforts met with heavy opposition in the mid-1990s, and they never progressed beyond suggestions. Several of these projects, however, have garnered support from the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, in recent years of this century. One of these initiatives is the recently approved EUROCLASSES classification system for building materials, which uses a complex system of ratings for material and component characteristics and properties to provide architects and builders with accurate information about the materials they intend to use in the design and construction of a project.

It’s often a different story in Central and South America. Many of the 43 nations, republics, island governments, and protectorates have modeled their fire safety legislation and standards after those of the United States, notably the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Others have enacted their own legislation based on their unique traits, while others have sought guidance from Europe. Some nations, such as Mexico and Peru, have substantial national and regional rules that provide a wealth of information on materials and system specifications, while others refer directly to specific NFPA codes. Unfortunately, most of these countries’ law is mostly lip service, and when calamity strikes, authorities scramble to find a scapegoat as quickly as possible. The devastating 2004 commercial mall fire in Asunción, Paraguay, which killed over 400 people, is a recent example of this. The three-story complex had been designed and equipped with highly combustible materials and lacked adequate fire exits, according to the investigation. Furthermore, security officers sealed doors during the early stages of the fire, preventing most of the victims from fleeing. These security guards also used firearms to frighten first responders. Many of these countries attempt to be like the United States, but fall short and have little enforcement.

Building design and construction, as well as equipment, systems, and installations, are all covered by substantial law in Australia and New Zealand. In proportion to its population, Australia has a high ratio of research and testing facilities, and it conducts some of the world’s most advanced inquiry and research projects in fire prevention, such as smoke control in various types and sizes of buildings. In the land of the kangaroo, one of the world’s premier fire protection industries was born.

Because of the unique characteristics of most of the country’s residential and small- to medium-business premises building, Japan is likely the leader in fire safety standards in Asia. The Philippines and China have lately made huge progress in strengthening building rules and fire safety, owing largely to public pressure following a series of recent multifatality incidents. These two countries, however, have limited firefighting skills; China may have the manpower, but not the know-how.

On the African continent, the Republic of South Africa has various fire prevention and protection rules in place, followed by Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, albeit these countries lag well behind South Africa in terms of extensive or stringent law. They are, however, much ahead of countries like Rwanda, Congo Kinshasa, Chad, Namibia, and Mali, where fire prevention and protection are given little or no thought.

As can be seen, much has been done in many locations and countries to reduce fire-related deaths and property losses, but there is still much more to be done in other places. In terms of fire prevention and protection, the United States has historically been the world leader. Although the United States is a world leader in fire protection systems, it falls well short of many European countries and Japan when it comes to fire prevention.