The Price Of Safety

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Fire Code Sparks Costly Change

In Charleston, S.C., a memorial, appropriately called the Charleston Nine site, protects the sacred ground where the Sofa Super Store, a commercial furniture showroom and warehouse facility, once stood. On June 18, 2007, almost a decade ago, a massive fire—fueled by burning furniture that produced toxic and extremely flammable gases—destroyed the building and claimed the lives of nine firefighters from the first-responding fire department. Nine other firefighters barely escaped serious injury.

It was a tragedy that could have been avoided, but neither the Sofa Super Store’s 42,000-square-foot, single-story, steel trussed showroom; its adjoining 17,000-square-foot warehouse with a 29-foot ceiling height; nor the covered loading dock area that connected the two buildings were equipped with fire sprinklers. To further complicate matters, the space in which the furniture and mattresses were stacked did not contain smoke vents or draft curtains.  

Nevertheless, this particular fire was not the result of negligence on the building owner’s part. As a matter of fact, the facility was not required by local building codes to have sprinkler systems in place. Both buildings were grandfathered to previous codes. 

Igniting Improvements
During the initial investigation of the horrific event, investigators and fire experts slammed the first-responding fire department with an abundant amount of criticism about everything from equipment misuse to poor leadership and not following proper procedures. However, after the smoke cleared and tempers fizzled, other independent investigations and studies followed. Ultimately, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) decided it was time to make national safety improvements, urging state and cities to adopt the current national model building and fire safety codes to prevent tragedies like the Charleston fire from occurring in the future.

The NIST report, which was issued in 2010, sparked a revision to the International Code Council’s (ICC) building code 903.2.9 Group S-1 with adjusted square footage limitations and the addition of a fifth condition; group S-1 refers to a building’s occupancy as storage.

The 2012 code 903.2.9 Group S-1 states:

“An automatic sprinkler system shall be provided throughout all buildings containing a Group S-1 occupancy where one of the following conditions exists:

  1. A Group S-1 fire area exceeds 12,000 square feet.
  2. A Group S-1 fire area is located more than three stories above grade plane.
  3. The combined area of all Group S-1 fire areas on all floors, including any mezzanines, exceeds 24,000 square feet.
  4. A Group S-1 fire area used for the storage of commercial motor vehicles where the fire area exceeds 5,000 square feet.
  5. A Group S-1 occupancy used for the storage of upholstered furniture or mattresses exceeds 2,500 square feet.”

The Blaze’s Bearing
Due to the fact that the building codebooks are updated every three years and the agencies that enforce the codes have six years to adopt the new codes, the 2012 version of the codes have begun influencing the industry.

“Most are likely already in effect and impacting new construction and remodeling projects,” says Marcus Dunn, director of government relations for the Self Storage Association. “In general, according to industry experts, the changes add about $8 per square foot to new construction. Specifically, newly constructed facilities must provide sprinklers if the fire area is 2,500 square feet or more. The previous code required sprinklers for fire areas of 12,000 square feet or more. Firewall protection has been increased to a 3-hour wall—which in the opinion of many architects, builders, and operators in an excessive requirement—bringing storage facilities in line with mattress warehouses and occupied dwellings.” 

Although Robert High of Robert High Properties LLC feels it may take some time to measure the effects of the code change, he is certain that it will have a negative financial impact on new projects or future phases of existing facilities. For starters, High warns developers that planned phases or facility expansions could necessitate the installation of six-inch water lines to accommodate sprinkler systems. “You may have to tear up asphalt,” he says, “which would be an additional cost.” Moreover, there are water pressure/flow issues that could arise. “A booster may be required to have enough pressure for the sprinkler system.”

While firewalls can be utilized as an alternative to sprinkler systems, High says that a firewall every 2,500 square feet is just not practical. He had requested that the ICC revert back to the 2009 code which required firewall or sprinklers every 12,000 square feet instead of the current code’s 2,500-square-foot requirement.

John Stanley, Site Safe Security’s regional manager and license holder for Florida, finds firewalls to be a passive choice. Despite the fact that they have no ongoing upkeep, firewalls don’t stop fires as well as sprinkler systems. Essentially, firewalls merely contain a fire to an area and allow the fire to burn that space. “A sprinkler system is more proactive in attempts to stop fire from spreading,” he says. “However, there are recurring costs with sprinkler systems as they need kept up and inspected.”

Of course, the code will impact each new development project differently depending on the site, design, layout, unit mix, etc., but developers should be aware of the requirements in order to create the most cost-effect project as possible.

Fired Up
Similar to any unexpected change, the code has resulted in some controversy. “Self-storage should be exempt,” says Cothran Harris of Cothran Harris Architecture. “It’s not the same as warehouses. Storage units typically have low ceilings and you can’t stack items as high. Typically there is not a drop ceiling in self-storage facilities. The possibility of a self-storage facility catching fire and creating a similar situation to the 2007 Charleston Sofa Super Store fire is extremely low whether mattresses are stored at the facility or not.”

High agrees that self-storage isn’t a good fit for the 2012 code. “Self-storage is a minimal use,” he says. “It’s low traffic.”

Because the definition of a Group S-1 was vague, Harris, who is an ICC member, requested a formal interpretation from the council. He also asked that the ICC define the difference between self-storage and storage warehouses that are dedicated to the storage of upholstered furniture and/or mattresses.

According to Robert Neale, the ICC’s vice president of government relations, national fire service activities, the code was formally interpreted on Oct. 6, 2014. This year the SSA and two individuals submitted code revision proposals in attempts to have the code changed for the upcoming 2018 version of the codebook. Unfortunately, all three proposals that were submitted to the ICC were voted down by the Fire Code Committee at the public hearings this summer, meaning that there will be no changes to 903.2.9 Group S-1 code for the 2018 version of its codebook.   

Neale, who states that the Fire Code Committee is mostly made up of present and former firefighters, suggests that part of the reason the proposals were voted down may have to do with the flammability of furniture. “Furniture is much more flammable and combustible these days,” he says. “It is filled with foam or polyurethane nowadays which burns dramatically once its ignited.” 

Although it is too late to influence the 2018 version of the code, self-storage professionals are encouraged to voice their opinions and submit proposals for the 2021 codebook. “The code development process is open to everyone,” says Neale. “The ICC strives to make the process open and transparent.”

Safety First!
Even though this more stringent code will undeniably increase the initial construction costs of new self-storage facilities, the good news is that it has the potential to reduce insurance claims in the event of a fire. As Stanley puts it, “you may only lose three units compared to an entire building”. He also reminds storage operators to consider the loss of revenue after a fire: Adhering to the code could keep more paying customers in their units following a fire by reducing the amount of damage to the buildings, tenants’ stored goods, and your facility’s reputation. Moreover, your facility may enjoy reduced premiums for fire insurance coverage by having sprinkler systems and other fire safety devices in place throughout the site. 

“It’s for the safety of anyone who may be around in the event of a fire,” says Stanley.

Therefore, keep in mind that these fire codes are intended to save lives and curtail injuries. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, especially when it comes to the lives of your customers and employees! 

Erica Shatzer is the editor of Mini-Storage Messenger, Self-Storage Now!, and Self-Storage Canada.

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