Scattered Code and the AHJ Role

First things First…

The first thing to understand is that the AHJ is not a single entity but is defined by NFPA as “an organization, office, or individual responsible for enforcing the requirements of a code or standard, or for approving equipment, materials, an installation, or a procedure. The definition also goes further in the annex of the codes, which states, “Where public safety is primary, the AHJ may be a federal, state, local, or other regional department of individual such as a fire chief, fire marshal, chief of a fire prevention bureau, labor department, or health department, building official, electrical inspector, or others having statutory authority. We must also add that for insurance purposes, and insurance inspection department, rating bureau, or other insurance company representative may be the AHJ.

Now that we have an understanding of what defines an AHJ, let’s dive into what we all know but never seem to know together… code.

Yes, I said CODE. That 4 letter word that not only drives our industry but also is the general rule book for us all to follow, including the AHJ. If you don’t know by now, CODE is the minimal spec that we all are required to meet in everything we do. So why does it feel that CODE is so scattered with the AHJ’s?

The most common AHJ that we see in Life Safety Trades is the famous Fire Marshall. That one individual that seems to override the rules that we thought were in place. So, let’s dive down a bit on why they make those crazy calls on occasion and seem to change the game plan. Each Fire Marshall reads the exact same black and white code books that we read. Where the disconnect happens is how each of us interprets those words written in stone. I call this area “Grey Matter”. Over the past 20 years I have learned that we each see the black words on the white pages the same, but we each take away the references differently, causing the colors to blur and creating the grey matter. This is where most AHJ’s, especially Fire Marshalls tend to live. Now grey matter can be easily managed from our end very effectively, that is until a new code is adopted and we tend to start over again and maintain the grey year after year. What is the fix?

Simple. As a fire science engineer, and don’t confuse that with a fire protection engineer, I speak a language very similar to the fire departments. I see and review designs in a different way than an FPE would. I see the fire for what it really is and don’t always look at what code says to do.  This means what I see is not the code minimum based on the information we do have, but rather seeing a much bigger picture going above and beyond those black and white pages. The Fire Marshall tries to do the same exact thing, and guess who else looks deeper than we normally do? Insurance companies. We aren’t just saving lives here, we are saving property now and no one drives that better than the checkbook holder when things go wrong.

Taking that all into consideration and keeping it always in your mind, the question seems to always remain as to why code is still scattered and why is the AHJ picking on me. The solution is very simple, and we need to practice it more in our industry. That solution is to just communicate with the AHJ more often and build a very solid relationship based on trust and leveraging both parties’ expertise.

It will never be perfect, especially when we deal with so many different designers and so many jurisdictions. The gap can be made much smaller by not only knowing what the AHJ wants, and be sure to get it in writing, but to help educate them since on a daily basis we are the industry experts. When I speak to all of my local AHJ’s throughout the state it isn’t just a conversation to understand them, but a conversation for them to understand what we see every day that they don’t usually. We are an extension for the AHJ. We inspect, service, and install systems more frequently than they ever see in our direct trade. Keep in mind they are not a specific expert in our trades like we are, but merely a code enforcer for books written by others. We need to be each other’s students and teachers. This relationship becomes the core of how we drive problems in code and becomes a unified solution with understanding. In return the code is not as scattered between us and the AHJ.

In conclusion, the code is scattered only because we all think we know better than the AHJ and sometimes think we know more than they do. The reality is that we just all see it differently and communication is the key to closing that gap. Then again, the AHJ has the authority to do whatever it is they decide is best. Let’s help drive them toward the direction we want by being in the discussion before the design even happens.

By Tony Brasher, FireWorx Fire Protection, LLC – COO/Fire Science Engineer IV