Fire officials: Proposed Va. fire code changes put public at risk

LEESBURG, Va. — Likely changes to Virginia’s Statewide Fire Prevention Code are putting the demands of developers and homebuilders above the safety of homes and businesses, Loudoun County’s top two fire officials say.

In Virginia, building codes, which dictate how structures can be constructed, and fire prevention codes, which aim to ensure the safety of buildings, are developed and updated by the commonwealth’s Board of Housing and Community Development, under the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Loudoun County Fire Chief Keith Brower and Chief Fire Marshal Linda Hale said the governor-appointed board, a majority of whose members have ties to developers, architects and homebuilders, is poised to delete many existing provisions from the statewide fire code.

Some requirements lie in both the building code and the fire code. The board is in the process of removing those duplicated portions from the fire code, leaving them strictly under the building code, and doing it on a fast track — what Brower calls “voluminous changes” are set to be voted on Oct. 24, circumventing the usual three-year process for such changes and state and leaving local fire officials unable to fully vet them.

Assistant Fire Chief Rob Dawson, of Chesterfield County, is the only fire official sitting on the Board of Housing and Community Development. He said he is often the sole dissenting vote in discussions about code revision.

Brower said that having a single vote for public safety on the committee that has final say on the state’s fire code means fire alarm systems, sprinkler systems, hood systems, and other, sometimes costly safety equipment, are likely to be given short shrift.

“When it comes to code development, there is a focus, many times, on the economic aspect, as opposed to the public safety aspect,” Brower said in a WTOP interview. “Everybody wants economic development, but it can’t just be development at the cost of public safety.”

Hale said proposed changes would hamstring her ability during safety inspections to make temporary fixes, and could cause undue hardship on business owners.

Under current regulations, Hale could order a business owner to post a sign reading “Door Must Be Unlocked During Business Hours” to ensure the business has enough exits in the event of a fire.

That’s an easy fix, but “the way we’re reading this code change, [it’s] considered construction because it’s putting something up,” said Brower. “It’s therefore [being] removed from the fire prevention code.”

If the proposed changes go into effect, Hale said, her only options would be to ignore the violation, or order the business closed. “But now we’ve disrupted commerce, when all we may need to have is a clarification,” Brower said.

While building codes are set statewide, local jurisdictions can add provisions to their fire prevention codes. If the changes being contemplated go through, Loudoun County would have to go through the time-consuming process of reintroducing items stripped from the state code.

As an example, Brower points to regulations already in place in this fast-growing county surrounding commercial blasting, for uses including sewer lines and water lines.

“We have a disproportionate amount of that activity going on, compared to a more rural county that’s not dealing with that growth and development,” Brower said.

Chesterfield County sent a letter Thursday to the chief of staff of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and other officials, asking the code amendments be removed from the current process, to allow more time for review.

Amanda Love, public relations director with the Department of Housing and Community Development, said review of the code changes “is tentatively scheduled for the October meeting,  but it has to go through two additional subcommittees before it reaches the board meeting.”

“Ten fire officials, representing many fire organizations, have been working on this process for more than a year,” Love said in an email.

She said it could be more than 18 months before the code change process is completed.

Brower said he will make the argument next week for increased fire official involvement, when he meets with Todd Haymore, Virginia’s secretary of commerce and trade.

“Our appeal will be to stop this process,” Brower said. “It’s advanced too fast; there are too many unknowns, and this could jeopardize public safety.”

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