NFPA Fire Code Overview (2021 Edition): Chapters 1-10

By Andrew Erickson

August 13, 2022

The NFPA Fire Code is a foundational document for any fire protection system designed and installed in the United States. It is the agreed-upon (and legally mandated by public sector officials) standard by which any location's fire safety is judged.

The text is divided into chapters that evolve over time. In the 2021 edition, there are 75 chapters and 6 annexes.

NFPA 1 (Fire Code), Chapter1 - Chapter 10
The NFPA Fire Code ("NFPA 1") establishes standards for all fire protection systems. This overview will walk you through the basic structure and content of Chapters 1-10.

A comprehensive review of the entire code is outside of scope. You can just read to code itself if that's what you're after. It's available for free online access or purchase from NFPA.org.

In this overview (which you can think of as a kind of "NFPA 101" class, even though that's actually a different code!), I'll be walking you through the basic structure of the 2021 Edition of the NFPA Fire Code. Let's get started!

Chapter 4: General Requirements

Chapters 1-3 cover only basic references and definitions, so we'll begin our overview with Chapter 4.

As noted in the early sections:

"4.1.1 Goals. The goals of this Code shall be to provide a reasonable level of safety, property protection, and public welfare from the hazards created by fire, explosion, and other hazardous conditions."
"4.1.3.1.1 Safety-from-Fire Goals. The fire safety goals of this code shall be ... to provide an environment for the occupants in a building or facility and for the public near a building or facility that is reasonably safe from fire and similar emergencies ... (and) to protect fire fighters and emergency responders."

Similar statements of goals continue with increasing specificity. Historical buildings are covered. Occupancy classifications are covered.

Overall, Chapter 4 is about establishing general for targets for what the code is hoping to achieve. As you read through this chapter, you'll realize that it is setting the stage for the much more detailed chapters to come. This section of the Code is what all other sections are striving to achieve. It is these overarching targets that the upcoming details aim to support.

This approach to fire code design makes a lot of sense. When you're just getting started, it's easy to think of the NFPA codes and standards as overly complicated without good reason.

In truth, however, each recommended practice contained within the Code exists to address one small part of fire and life safety.

Chapter 5: Performance-Based Option

I admit that this chapter struck me as strange when I first read its title. What else could be a reasonable alternative to a life safety system that performs?

Chapter 5 offers an alternative to the Prescriptive-Based Option described in 4.3. The basic premise, to my eye, is to permit larger organizations some latitude if they achieve performance targets.

If you are a typical organization, you will expect to follow all details of the broader NFPA Fire Code, including virtually all of its chapters.

If you work for a large organization or one where the direct regulations in the Code become unworkable, Chapter 5 offers performance targets. If you can demonstrate that you meet those targets consistently, your adherence to specific requirements in the Code is not enforced.

In this way, the list of NFPA codes is recognized by Chapter 5 as not the most important factor. The goals described in Chapter 4 are what matter.

I really like this approach. Any set of regulations this long will begin to seem unreasonable and onerous to some, among NFPA members and public citizens alike.

Fortunately, the Code acknowledges here that its detailed prescriptions are just one way to get the job done. If you can prove that your way works reliably, you're welcome to use it.

Chapter 6: Classification of Occupancy

The type of occupancy in a building matters. An unmanned industrial facility with only rare well-trained visitors obviously has very different safety requirements when compared to a residential apartment complex.

This chapter breaks down buildings into many categories:

  • Educational
  • Health Care
  • Detention and Correctional
  • Residential
  • Business
  • Industrial
  • Storage
  • Multiple/Mixed Occupancy
  • Separated Occupancies

Codes and standards, including fire alarm regulations, hinge directly on the type of occupancy on a building. In this way, a building determination that NFPA members and public sector employees make here in Chapter 6 echoes through the rest of the Code.

The interior of the ghost ship warehouse 20 days after the tragic accident.
By strictly adhering to the NFPA fire code and using fire alarm management systems, tragic events like the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, where 36 people died at a concert hosted in the warehouse, can be prevented.

Chapters 7-9: Reserved (for Future Use)

Scrolling through the free-online-access version of the NFPA Fire Code, you'll notice that you jump almost immediately from Chapter 6 to Chapter 10.

That's because Chapter 7, Chapter 8, and Chapter 9 contain only the simple word: "Reserved".

These are smartly carved out in the beginning of the Code to avoid the hassle of renumbering chapters later. Without reserved chapters, the only available method to add content would be to shove a new (apparently important) chapter at the end of the numbering scheme. Imagine if the "Goals" in Chapter 4 were actually in Chapter 76. That would be silly.

Chapter 10: General Safety Requirements

This is really the next level down from the goals in Chapter 4. If those are what is to be accomplished, then Chapter 10 is how we will accomplish it.

It's here that we find one thing we all remember from grade school:

10.5 Fire Drills: ...Drills shall be designed in cooperation with the local authorities (ex. fire departments). Emergency egress and relocation drills, where required ... shall be held with sufficient frequency to familiarize occupants with the drill procedure and to establish conduct of the drill as a matter of routine. Drills shall include suitable procedures to ensure that all persons subject to the drill participate.

Emergency Action Plan requirements are also described in great detail, helping to resolve any technical questions you may have about the design of such plans.

Talk to an Expert about the NFPA Fire Code

This stuff is complicated. That's not without reason, as I hope I've expressed above. Life safety is one of the most important things on the planet. Still, it's challenging when you're first getting started.


Our fire systems collect and process data from the dgm (panel in the middle), collected from your fire detection devices (smoke detector on the left), in our System 3505 Prism LX (on the right).

Because Digitize manufactures and sells fire alarm monitoring systems, we have to be familiar with the Code. We deal with some sections far more than others, but we'll always point you in the right direction (or flip through the Code with you on the phone with us!).

Just give me a call to ask your questions about NFPA 1. Call 800-523-7232 or email me at info@digitize-inc.com

Andrew Erickson

Andrew Erickson

Andrew Erickson is an Application Engineer at DPS Telecom, a manufacturer of semi-custom remote alarm monitoring systems based in Fresno, California. Andrew brings more than 15 years of experience building site monitoring solutions, developing intuitive user interfaces and documentation, and opt...