Loudoun fire officials say state revisions to the fire code are placing homebuilders’ demands above the safety of homes and businesses.
The Virginia Board of Housing and Community Development is in the process of revising the state fire code, with a goal of removing elements that are duplicated in the building code.
The problem, Loudoun’s fire officials said, is that deleting those rules from the fire code takes away their ability to enforce them. Chief Fire Marshal Linda Hale gave the example of presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s visit to a Stone Ridge coffee shop last week. Hale’s office made sure that, while people crowded into the shop to see Clinton, there were adequate emergency exits for everyone.
“So, should something happen, we can assure that everyone gets out,” Hale said. “The Secret Service is here to be able to make sure the dignitary gets out. Our job is to be able to make sure everybody else gets out.”
And while the building code is set in stone at the state level, localities can add to the fire code to address local concerns. For example, Loudoun’s fire code has more detailed requirements on explosives.
“We think probably 100,000 pounds of explosives go in and out of Loudoun County every day,” Combined Fire-Rescue System Chief W. Keith Brower Jr. said in an interview in his office. Other counties don’t have that problem, but the combination of constant construction and rocky land means a lot of explosives are in use. One of Hale’s responsibilities is making sure construction sites are safe when blasting.
In addition, building inspectors, for the most part, can only enforce building code rules for two years after a building achieves its certificate of occupancy. So once a building has been in use for two years, those rules are difficult or impossible to enforce.
“They’ve created this trap where the fire official’s not going to be able to enforce it, and it’s going to be outside the scope of what the building official can correct,” Hale said.
DHCD spokeswoman Amanda Love said the code changes are driven by stakeholder participation, and are strictly for clarification.
“By including multiple stakeholders, Virginia is recognized nationally for its code change process and the codes adopted each three-year cycle,” Love stated. “Everyone has the same opportunity to submit and speak about any proposed changes at any of the work group meetings. As far as consensus is concerned in the work group meetings, besides the author of the proposed change, if anyone else in the work group adamantly opposes the change, then the change is considered as non-consensus and will be sent to the Virginia Board of Housing and Community Development for final decision.”
Hale also said the rule changes will have unintended consequences. She gives the example of a rule that allows the fire marshal to order a business owner to hang a sign that says a door must be unlocked during business hours; that helps ensure that in the case of a fire, there are enough exits to evacuate the building. That rule is proposed for deletion—meaning her office must rely on a different rule, which would require her to drag a building owner into court for a violation.
“We believe that these changes that are happening are with one specific intent, and that is primarily to weaken the enforcement of the fire code at the local level,” Brower told the Board of Supervisors’ finance committee last week. The more the state relies on the building code, he said, the less a locality can amend regulations to suit its needs.
Chesterfield Assistant Fire Chief Rob Dawson is a member of the Virginia Fire Services Prevention Association and represents the Virginia Fire Services Board on the Virginia Board of Housing and Community Development. He said that as the only fire official on the housing board, he is often the dissenting vote. The fire code revisions, he explained, start in special workgroups, where Department of Housing and Community Development officials hear opinions in the room and decide whether there is consensus. The lack of a formal vote can be used to smother the objections of public safety officials, he said.
“The process is overwhelmingly over-represented by some special interests, and our opinions are put to the back burner,” Dawson said. “I’ve been in some of these workgroup meetings where there’s an issue before the group, and five fire officials can raise their hand and say that’s a bad idea, don’t move it forward, and DHCD staff says ‘well, that’s consensus, we’ve got enough agreeing with it that that’ll be fine.’ And another issue comes up that one member of the special interests can say, ‘I don’t like it,’ and it’s not a consensus item.”
“What I thought was Webster’s definition of consensus was definitely not what I witnessed in the room,” Hale agreed. “How do we have consensus? I just said I don’t agree with it.”
Of the 14 members of the Board of Housing and Community Development, 10 are employed in the real estate or building business.
Dawson also said the revision process has begun without any documented action by the Board of Housing and Community Development. The Fire Services Board, he said, asked the DHCD to stop its revisions and let the Fire Services Board look at the fire code.
“Let those of us who enforce that code daily look at the code and say this is or is not an enforceable provision, and let us make the amendments and bring that forward,” Dawson said. “That resoundingly fell on deaf ears, and the workgroup process actually accelerated at that point.”
Fairfax County Fire Marshal Captain George Hollingsworth, president of the Virginia Fire Prevention Association, which represents most fire marshals statewide, said his membership is “basically, at this point, at a loss for what else we can do.”
“This is overwhelmingly skewed to special interests,” said Loudoun Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn). “And which special interests is it skewed to? The exact same special interest that crammed the proffer bill down our throats earlier this year—the builder. They wield so much influence. This is one more example of their political power, and it’s one more example of them eroding local power and local jurisdictions.”
In the meantime, the Loudoun Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management has hired Bill Lloyd, one of the original architects of the state fire code, to represent the county at Board of Housing and Community Development meetings. Loudoun’s fire officials, Brower said, don’t have time to make it to every meeting in Richmond—they have day jobs, after all.
The DHCD plans to publish public hearing notices in the Virginia Register on June 27.