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Breaking Down the Code: Applying the Building and Fire Codes to Claims

June 15, 2022

Access to evidence and reliable information at the onset of a claim is crucial for a successful investigation. While early access to evidence is ideal, it may only sometimes be possible. This places a greater weight on the adjuster to perform a high-quality background and discovery investigation. We can use the applicable codes to determine responsibility, cause, and origin in building and fire claims.

How do building and fire codes become law?

Understanding how codes become law will help determine what codes or standards apply to a case. Every code we use has an Act that backs it up; Alberta has the Safety Codes Act, British Columbia has the Building Code and Fire Services Act, and Nova Scotia has the Building Code and Fire Safety Act. Each Act determines what code is enforced and, more specifically, the version of the code adopted.

The process of creating an Act and Regulation is essentially identical across each Canadian province.

The Building Code Act, 1992

Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) is responsible for updating and maintaining this Act and applicable regulations. The province also develops and maintains the qualification and registration system for building practitioners, including:

  • Building officials
  • Certain classes of designers
  • On-site sewage system installers
  • Registered code agencies

The province does not oversee the enforcement activities of municipalities. Activities enforced by municipalities include the permit process and potential permit-related charges.

The Fire Protection and Prevention Act, 1997

The Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM) is responsible for administering provincial legislation promoting fire protection, prevention, and public safety in Ontario. This office is responsible for the following:

  • The Fire Protection and Prevention Act.
  • The Fire Code. Therefore, this Act is specifically the Fire Marshal’s responsibility.
  • Providing advice and assistance on the application and enforcement of the legislation.
  • Managing the appeals process for orders received under the Fire Protection and Prevention Act.
  • Providing administrative services to the Fire Safety Commission.

Regulations support the legislation and are enforceable through the Acts mentioned above. Unlike legislation, regulations are not made by parliament. Instead, they are made by persons or bodies given authority by parliament. These persons or bodies could be the governor, council, or minister. Hence, regulations are developed under a separate process from Acts.

Once an Act is adopted as law, regulations are enforced under that Act. For example, the Building and Fire Codes have Acts that back them up. The regulation is a Code, and the Act supports that regulation.

All Acts have provisions, and you can’t use an old regulation under a current Act. Old regulations are revoked to make way for recent adoption. A revoked regulation may extend its application in certain circumstances or have application in certain past events.

For instance, the 2006 Ontario Building Code was revoked when the 2012 code was enforced. Any building constructed or permit established before that 2012 code was enforced would be required to meet the 2006 regulation.

National model codes are adopted as a whole or modified to develop regulations. These codes are published by the National Research Council of Canada and developed by the Canadian Commission of Building and Fire Codes.

The National Model Code establishes a baseline but is not legally binding. This means only some provinces will use it unless they adopt it through the relevant Act. The minister responsible for the Act is also responsible for the regulations that support the legislation. Regulations are filed with the register and provided a number.

Ontario Regulation File Numbers

Ontario has regulation file numbers (O.Reg 213/07 as amended). For example, the Ontario Building Code file number is O.Reg 332/12. This means the regulation was filed in 2012 under the number 332. However, the regulation was enforced on January 1, 2014.

In this context, “as amended” means a regulation with a 2015 code could still be a 213/07 regulation that is continuously being amended. This amendment process is a lot easier than creating a new regulation.

Before October 14, 2014, there were no provisions in the Fire Code for carbon monoxide alarms. The introduction of O.Reg 194/14 was the relevant amendment to this code. The latest amendment to date is O.Reg 319/22.

Unlike the Building Code, the Fire Code is retroactive. This means any addition to the regulation affects all existing buildings. So, if the building process meets the appropriate application, it must comply regardless of age.

Passive and active fire protection systems

These systems play a pivotal role in fire protection. Therefore, forensic engineers and adjusters must understand the fundamentals of these two separate systems in life safety.

The passive fire protection system comprises through-penetrations, mechanical tracks, gypsum, alternate enclosures, joints, and thermal insulation.

Figure 1: A passive system (left) and an active system (right).

Passive fire protection does not require any external power. Instead, it relies on specific construction features. Without a passive system, a fire can quickly spread from one area to an adjacent area.

Figure 2: An example of a passive system.

Penetrations into fire separations are avenues for fire spread. Common penetrations include cable or pipe runs, doors, and windows. These features require listed firestop or closure conforming to code. An example of this feature is a fire door.

A proper fire door would be constructed to minimize the passage of flames and smoke from one room to an adjacent area. An exit corridor that potentially has a lot of traffic flow requires maximum protection to prevent the spread of fire and smoke.

Figure 3: An example of a passive fire protection feature that meets the requirements of the Ontario Building Code. This is a typical construction of a 1-hour rated assembly.

Passive fire resistance rating (FRR) and fire protection rating (FPR)

Figure 4: Passive fire resistance rating (left) and fire protection rating.

Although they may appear similar, FRR and FPR are two different systems. The FRR is a standard fire endurance test for building construction and materials. In figure 4, the person’s hand on the wall indicates the assembly’s fire spread and heat transfer prevention capabilities.

In the above simulation, combustible material is on the wall’s other side. If it gets too hot, two separate fires will occur. If a fire separation is required, the wall must be tested in accordance with a specific standard. In this instance, the standard is the FRR.

The FPR means an assembly is tested and rated for the passage of flame or smoke. Heat transfer is not crucial in this rating. Both fire protection ratings are applied in the testing of a wall.

Fire resistance rating example

Figure 5: The components of a wall assembly

A wall assembly requires the necessary internal components. All the components must be combined to properly construct a fire separation, as shown in figure 5. To complete the fire separation package, a component must be on both sides and in the middle of the wall assembly. This will prevent fire spread and heat transfer.

Active fire protection systems

Figure 6: A sprinkler system as an example of active fire protection.

The operation of an active fire protection device requires manual, mechanical, or electrical power. For example, a sprinkler system requires operable sprinklers, water supplied at efficient flow rates, and pressure after activation.

Fire sprinkler systems

Smoke control systems rely on open roof fans or a mechanical system that operates when a fire is detected. Similarly, an alarm system requires electrical power to operate.

Figure 7: Different types of fire sprinkler systems: (Left to right) wet, dry, pre-action, and deluge systems.

Fire sprinkler systems are designed to protect a specific hazard classification that is generally identified within NFPA 13. The most widely used system is a wet system, which means there is always water present.

In contrast, dry systems have no water. They are typically in an area that does not have heat and is prone to freezing temperatures. Examples of such areas include underground or aboveground parking garages. If water systems were present in these areas, they would freeze.

The pre-action and deluge systems are very specialized, making them relatively scarce. Although the pre-action system appears complex, it is relatively easy to operate and understand.

Pre-action systems

There are three different types of pre-action systems. One is non-interlock, meaning there is a detector or automatic sprinklers. It functions very similarly to a dry system. However, these systems come in single and double interlocks. For this system to go off, some type of detector must go off. That detection, usually from a fire alarm, sends water into the piping network.

The deluge system design process

Figure 8: An aircraft hangar.

The design process of each fire sprinkler system is very complex. Therefore, a designer must obtain a building classification and a hazard classification. And then, all the information in the relevant standard must be applied to that specific hazard.

Sometimes a hazard is identified in both NFPA 13 and NFPA 409. The latter is a standard for aircraft hangars. Additionally, the relevant regulatory bodies must be consulted. They have certain designations and standards with specific requirements at or above the standard. In the case of a hangar, this would be Transport Canada or the Canadian Forces Fire Marshal.

Deluge high-expansion foam

This type of system protects the aircraft hangar. Hangars typically contain a lot of volatilities, including fuels and airplanes. Hence, the standards have become more specialized to include both NFPA 13 and NFPA 409.

High-expansion foam systems are often ideal for protecting hangars. The high expansion ensures that the hazards within the space are protected. There can be over 10 feet of foam generated in the system.

Clean agent system

These systems can be involved in specialized systems for different areas. Therefore, an investigator must be able to identify each system they evaluate.

Places incorporating water-based fire protection systems generally place throughout the structure. So, a pre-action system might be located inside a server room to avoid accidental water drips. But clean agent systems are also incorporated.

The clean agent system will go off first because the air sampling or cross-zone fire protection system is used. That means two different detectors will activate the clean agent system successfully. The backup is then a water-based fire protection system.

It is crucial to remember that these systems operate in enclosed environments. If the clean agent fails or the door does not close properly, there will be no protection integrity. So, if something is not working, there’s a backup to prevent fire from spreading beyond the area.

Fire alarm systems

Figure 9: Differences between conventional (right) and addressable (left) fire alarms.

These are common in various building types and sizes, like sprinkler systems. The two most common fire alarm systems are conventional and addressable systems.

An addressable system in an apartment complex can display the same floor and location where a detector went off. The display shows the room in which the detector is located. This will show a sequence of operations for the alarms in the entire building.

Older apartment complexes tend to have conventional fire alarm systems. This system can provide zoning that is based on the floor level. If there is a fire on level two, then it appears as zone two. Unlike an addressable system, conventional fire alarms only show the floor where a fire occurred. As such, they do not show the sequence of operation.

Addressable systems are used in many new apartment complexes because of their ability to quickly locate the fire and assist first responders. Conventional systems have been used in apartment complexes but are more heavily used within commercial buildings.

When you are in the field, always ask the owner or their representatives about the type of fire alarm system installed in the building. Also, ask if they can obtain the fire detector history. If they use an addressable system, for instance, they can access the history so you can see the sequence of operations. That is another advantage of addressable fire alarm systems.

Fixed fire protection systems

Figure 10: Examples of fixed fire protection systems.

Anything that contributes to grease-laden vapours requires a fixed fire suppression system. Therefore, these systems are typically installed in restaurant cooking operations.

The only fire protection systems used in commercial operations are wet chemical systems. Article of the Ontario Building Code would be used for new systems. This article will direct you to NFPA 96, the standard for commercial cooking operations’ ventilation control and fire protection. NFPA 17A is another standard for these wet systems.

For existing commercial cooking operations, the Ontario Fire Code would apply. In this case, the Ontario base would be Article The maintenance of these is critical, especially for existing systems. These systems still have to conform with NFPA 96 for the installation parameters, which also leads back to NFP 17A.

Application of standards and codes to a claim

Case study: Industrial building

Figure 11: Bays 1-6 of the F2 building.

An F2 primary occupancy refers to a medium industrial occupancy. The F2 Building, in this case, had multiple tenanted spaces used as repair shops. Other bays were affected but did not play a pivotal role in the fire spread.

A worker from tenant 2 saw smoke coming from tenant 1. Shortly after, 911 was called, and fire crews arrived to suppress the fire. A fire investigator from the OFM investigated the fire event’s origin, cause, and circumstances. Once the OFM investigation was completed, the insurance company contacted us to investigate the incident.

Figure 12: The loss area before (left) and after (right) the fire.

Upon examination, our fire investigator discovered that tenants 1 and 2 were separated by a wall constructed of plywood. The pre-fire photo in figure 12 depicts the combustible wood wall that separated the two tenants. The post-fire image depicts an open area void of any wall.

Potential Acts and regulations applicable to the case

The Ontario Building Code has set a minimum standard for designing and constructing new buildings. This applies to additions, alterations, and changes of use to existing buildings. The Fire Code was another regulation to consider in this case. This code applies across Ontario and consists of minimum requirements for fire safety within and around existing buildings and facilities.

While this case was about existing buildings, the plywood wall was an addition. Thus, the Ontario Building Code would be more applicable because the wall was not in the original design.

Passive fire protection – fire separations

Figure 13: The wall assembly of the building (left) and an example of a two-hour rated wall assembly (right).

In this case, we looked at the fire separations. There were two suites defined in the building code as a room or rooms of complimentary use operated under a single tenancy. A tenancy in this context applies to both rental and ownership.

A combustible wall separated the two suites before the fire. Upon examination of the code, Article (repair garage separation) revealed that these suites need to be “separated from other occupancies by a fire separation having a fire-resistance rating of not less than two h.” The plywood separation wall did not appear to have a two-hour rating.

Ontario Building Code references

Fire separation refers to a construction assembly that acts as a barrier against the spread of fire. According to Article, fire resistance ratings are required for the assembly. This Article contains two key requirements for building assembly. One states: “A material, assembly of materials or a structural member is permitted to be assigned a fire-resistance rating based on MMAH Supplementary Standard SB-2.”

However, SB-2 has some limitations. The maximum fire-resistance rating of walls constructed of wood studs, cold-formed steel studs, or floors made of wood joists and other materials can be determined for ratings of at most 90 minutes.

Fire and Building Code analysis

Code analysis can be conducted anytime a fire occurs, and a fire protection system appears to have failed.

Responsible person and/or corporation

The responsible parties for code compliance include owners, general contractors, developers, contractors, property managers, tenants, and landlords.

The building code mainly focuses on permits. In these permits, an “owner” refers to the registered owner, a lessee and a mortgage in possession. The owner is responsible for carrying out the provisions of the Ontario Fire Code unless otherwise specified.

In the Fire Code, “owner” means “any person, firm or corporation having control over any portion of the building or property under consideration and includes the persons in the building or property.” This is a much broader definition of the term.

Under this definition, property managers or contractors that had control over the system they were using can be considered owners. This means they can be held liable for a loss.

The landlord can also be responsible for a tenant with a smoke alarm. The owner must ensure a tenant has an operational smoke alarm when moving in and while there. The presence of smoke alarms must also be documented.

In the Ontario Building Code, the “owner” includes the registered owner, a lessee and a mortgagee in possession. The owner is responsible for maintaining the permit process. However, that does not mean they are completely held accountable.

Building contractors and similar professionals can be held liable in cases involving a permit. If a contractor completes work in a building without the necessary permit, the contractor and the registered owner will be held responsible.

The contractor is in a position to understand that they cannot work on a building without a permit. Therefore, they can be held liable for commencing the work.

There is a lot of complexity when we deal with responsibility and the ownership of each individual. We must keep taking responsibility for what the owner did and the next step.