Overview of NFPA 101: Life Safety Code
NFPA 101 is one of many fire codes that apply to you and your buildings. Unfortunately, the code can be quite dense when you haven't had to read through it before. Trying to skim it quickly is basically impossible.
To help you out, I've collected some basic information from some important chapters for you here.
To begin, let's briefly go over what exactly the NFPA is and what your legal obligations actually are. If you already know this, feel free to skip ahead.
We'll finish our discussion with a moderately detailed review of key chapters from NFPA 101 covering things like: means of egress, fire protection, and life safety equipment.
What is the NFPA? What are my legal obligations under the fire codes?
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is a global nonprofit that was started in 1896 in the U.S. It is devoted to eliminating death, injury, property and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards. Based on their knowledge and research, they have created over 300 codes and standards designed to minimize the risk and dangers of fire.
The codes that they write are not laws themselves, but are written with the intent of them being enforced by the AHJs (Authority Having Jurisdiction). To keep the codes up to date, the NFPA releases a new version of the code every three years. The AHJ may choose a specific version to enforce. Please check with your local authorities to see what applies to you.
So what is the Life Safety Code?
This is what the NFPA says about their NFPA 101: Life Safety Code.
"The Life Safety Code is the most widely used source for strategies to protect people based on building construction, protection, and occupancy features that minimize the effects of fire and related hazards. Unique in the field, it is the only document that covers life safety in both new and existing structures."
Simply put, its focus is to protect the building's occupants from fire, smoke and toxic fumes. It does this by defining the minimum design, construction, operation and maintenance requirements of the building in question.
There are 43 chapters in NFPA 101, but I've focused on a few important chapters for you here.
It can be overwhelming to read through all 43 chapters (plus 4 Annexes) of the NFPA 101 code, but it's available for free on their website. My goal is to ease your workload and briefly go over a few of the chapters I found important here.
NFPA helps us describe Means of Egress, Feautres of Fire Protection and Life safety Equipment in Chapters 7 through 9.
- Chapter 7 - Means of Egress
- Chapter 8 - Features of Fire Protection
- Chapter 9 - Building Service, Fire Protection and Life Safety Equipment
Let's get started by looking at our first of several important NFPA 101 chapters...
Chapter 7: Means of Egress
In Chapter 7, NFPA 101 goes into detail over the different aspects of egress. Egress means a place or way to exit and is very important during a fire, and needs to be thought through carefully. The goal of an egress is to get out safely. When there are many people involved, it can get very difficult to get everyone out in time in an emergency situation. Here are some of the topics that are covered in this chapter:
- Egress Components
- Egress Capacity
- Emergency Lighting
After a general introduction to the chapter, the NFPA 101 code starts talking about Egress Components (7.2). There are many details that the code goes into, but the first component it talks about are doors (7.2.1). It specifies the minimum door width, maximum force required to open, doors with locks that always open from the inside, or doors with alarms that open after 15 seconds. Less common doorways like revolving doors or security turnstiles are also defined within this section.
Stair requirements are next (7.2.2). NFPA 101 specifies the type of staircase allowed, such as a curved, spiral, or winder type. As well as the minimum stair tread depth and maximum riser height. Handrails are also defined with height and position requirements.
To keep people safe when in a fire, they also define what a smokeproof enclosure is (7.2.3). A smokeproof enclosure is basically an exit stairwell with at least a 2 hour fire resistance rating, which is classified as smoke proof. Less common egress types like ramps, swinging stairs, ladders and slides are also defined exhaustively.
The size and capacity of the egress is dependent on the quantity of people. The maximum capacity of the room / building may be limited by the size of the egress, the number or arrangement of egresses. Proper planning is vital when purchasing or changing the purpose and occupancy load of a building!
Next, let's look at one of the other major focuses of NFPA 101: emergency lighting (7.9). After a power failure, the egress needs to have emergency lighting for at least 1.5 hours. This includes stairs and anywhere else designated to be an exit path. Another requirement is that when switching from main power to backup power, a maximum of 10 seconds is allowed (22.214.171.124).
"Features of fire protection" is a broad topic. Essentially, this chapter relates to the specific aspects of building design that slow or prevent fires. This is distinct from the fire alarms and monitoring systems I routinely work with at Digitize, but is clearly very important.
No matter how good your fire detection is, having the right building design to either prevent or at least slow the spread of a fire is going to be vital in your efforts to prevent injuries or loss of life.
Let's dig into a few specific sections of Chapter 8 to discuss specific examples...
8.2.3 Fire-Resistance-Rated Construction
This chapter describes specific materials (ex. Wood and its included adhesives) that must be adequately rated for fire resistance. Wood, for all of its obvious structural value, is quite literally fuel for a hazardous fire. As a result, this NFPA 101 chapter demands certain minimum levels of fire resistance for any wood to be used in new construction.
As we see in Section 126.96.36.199.2:
In new construction, end-jointed lumber used in an assembly required to have a fire resistance rating shall have the designation "Heat Resistant Adhesive" or "HRA" included in its grade mark.
8.3 Fire Barriers
The best way to prevent fire or smoke from spreading through a building is with a fire barrier. These have different ratings, from 30 minutes to 3 hours. They are often in the form of a wall or curtain. In order to contain fire, they need to be continuous and fill the entire opening, or go from an exterior wall to another exterior wall or fire barrier.
Since a fire barrier also keeps out people, it's important to have some protected openings (8.3.3) through the barrier. NFPA 101 code specifies the length of time elements like doors, windows and exit corridors need to be fire resistant. Along with those larger openings, there need to be smaller penetrations in the fire barrier for items like cables, conduits and pipes. In section 8.3.4 it goes into detail about those requirements.
The smoke from a fire is no joke. In fact, the number one cause of fire related death is smoke inhalation. The NFPA 101: Life Safety Code goes into extensive detail about how smoke is to be contained, down to when and where smoke dampers are installed, as we see in Section 188.8.131.52.1:
Air-conditioning, heating, ventilating ductwork, and related equipment, including smoke dampers and combination fire and smoke dampers, shall be installed in accordance with NFPA 90A, NFPA 90B, NFPA 105, or NFPA 80, as applicable.
When I was reading through the code for the first time, I came across the section 8.6 Vertical Openings and I was confused by the terminology. I thought a vertical opening would be a door or a window, but instead, it's an opening between floors in a building. Think of it in terms of a staircase or ladder, or a multi-storied building with an atrium. Since these vertical openings connect floors, they are essentially a hole in the smoke barrier and the areas around them need extra protection.
Taken from Section 8.6.2* Continuity:
Openings through floors shall be enclosed with fire barrier walls, shall be continuous from floor to floor, or floor to roof, and shall be protected as appropriate for the fire resistance rating of the barrier.
As hopefully we saw, Chapter 8 contains many building requirements designed to promote safety. I'll now go over some important details from Chapter 9. Instead of focusing on the building shape and design like in Chapter 8, it zooms in to look at some of the smaller elements like public utilities and alarm system requirements that are still vitally important.
Chapter 9 - Building Service, Fire Protection, Life Safety Equipment
After focusing in Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 about the building's layout requirements and fire blocking, let''s take a look at some of the utilities and controls that come into play when there is an emergency.
For example, in section 184.108.40.206:
New generator controllers shall be monitored by the fire alarm system, where provided, or at an attended location, for the following conditions:
- Generator running
- Generator fault
- Generator switch in nonautomatic position
The code mentions being monitored by the fire alarm system, and that's our speciality. Digitize's monitoring hardware would be able to detect if there were an alert, and relay it automatically to a central monitoring station, where any problems could be dealt with promptly. We have experience in interfacing with all types of alerts, from interpreting actual telegraph pulses, to interfacing with radio receivers, and can work with you for all your fire alarm monitoring needs.
The Prism LX is able to process: Telegraph, Direct-wire, Digital Dialer, Ethernet, Polling Radio, Multiplex, Serial Input alarm signals.
If you've read this far, you should know that we specialize in fire alarm monitoring solutions. If you have an alarm system that meets the NFPA 101 fire alarm requirements like in the below section 220.127.116.11, please know that we can provide a solution that can centrally monitor it. Like our slogan says, "Respond First When Seconds Count". Those seconds really do matter, and being able to alert the fire department quickly can help save countless lives.
Fire alarm systems required by this Code shall be installed, tested, and maintained in accordance with the applicable requirements of NFPA 70 and NFPA 72 unless otherwise permitted by 18.104.22.168.
I'm not sure about you, but I remember there being something magical about a laundry chute the first time I saw one. How did it work, I put the laundry in here, and it magically appears in another place altogether! Granted, I was fairly young when I first saw one, but it still left an impression. As with all seemingly magical things, there's a lot of thought and care put in to make it seem magical. In section 22.214.171.124 one of the details specified is that all laundry chutes be enclosed by a fire barrier.
Waste chutes and laundry chutes shall be separately enclosed by walls or partitions in accordance with the provisions of Section 8.3.
Please don't think that the handful of specific examples I've shown you above represent the entirety of Chapter 9. There are also many other important topics, including:
- Smoke Control
- Automatic Sprinklers
In our line of work of fire alarm monitoring, we mainly refer to the NFPA 72 code, and so does the NFPA 101 code. At least we're not alone! Throughout section 9.6 it references the NFPA 72. Here is an example (Section 126.96.36.199.9) of a smoke alarm requirement that also references NFPA 72:
Smoke alarms, other than battery-operated smoke alarms as permitted by other sections of this Code, shall be powered in accordance with the requirements of NFPA 72.
Here at Digitize, we're willing to plumb the depths of this code to help keep you safe. Please reach out to one of our qualified engineers If you need help with a specific problem or situation.