Building Life Safety - Expert Article

The this article, the architectural team at Robson Forensic provides introductory information on the history of life safety in buildings as well as the modern building and life safety codes.

Building Life Safety


Given contemporary knowledge and building technology, there are now far fewer reasons for fire, in properly designed and maintained, modern buildings, to cause loss of life.

According to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) statistics, in 2011, there were 1,389,500 fires reported in the United States. These fires caused 3,005 civilian deaths, 17,500 civilian injuries, and $11.7 billion in property damage.

Data from 2011 United States Fire Loss Clock (NFPA):

  • A structure fire was reported every 65 seconds
  • A home structure fire was reported every 85 seconds
  • One civilian death occurred every 2 hours and 55 minutes
  • One civilian injury occurred every 30 minutes

History of Life Safety in Buildings

Life safety in buildings began to emerge as an important issue in the late 1800s when the NFPA was formed by insurance companies in order to apply standards to the new concept of fire sprinkler systems in buildings.

In 1913 NFPA formed The Committee on Safety to Life. This was the beginning of standards for life safety in buildings. The initial focus was the study of notable fires and analysis of causes for loss of life. Eventually the focus shifted to the development of standards for construction of egress routes and fire exit drills in various use groups with high occupancy loads, such as factories and schools.

From 1921 to 1927 The Committee on Safety to Life expanded to cover all classes of building occupancy and in 1927 the first Building Exit Code (BEC) was published. Updated editions were published until the early 1940s when a series of devastating fires, most notably the Cocoanut Grove Night Club Fire of 1942 in which 492 lives were lost, drew national attention to fire safety. The result was evolution of the BEC into the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code. Unlike the BEC which was a reference document with advisory provisions inappropriate for legal use, NFPA 101 was based on requirements suitable for mandatory application.


NFPA includes 356 codes and standards in its current family of documents addressing life safety and fire prevention. There are now over 200 technical codes and standards committees. Designers and experts commonly reference:

  • NFPA 1, Fire Code
  • NFPA 13 (series), Standards for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems
  • NFPA 70, National Electrical Code
  • NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signal Code
  • NFPA 101(series), Life Safety Code

Model Building Codes vs. Life Safety Codes

As NFPA was developing The Building Exit Code, Model Building Codes were being developed in order to standardize safe construction of all building types for enhanced public safety in the United States. The first of three regional organizations began in 1927 and all three remained in operation until 2000, when the three organizations merged into the International Code Council (ICC) with its family of codes including the International Building Code.

The primary difference between the ICC family of model building codes and the NFPA family of codes and standards is that ICC addresses all components of building construction, including life safety from fire, while NFPA deals exclusively with building life safety and fire prevention. Additionally, while ICC deals with life safety and fire prevention relative to design and construction, NFPA deals with them relative to design, construction and operation.

International Code Council (ICC)

ICC currently includes a cross section of codes for New Construction and Remodeling, Existing Buildings, Property Maintenance, Plumbing, Electrical and Mechanical Systems as well as newer codes like the International Energy Code and the International Green Building Code. Those sections of the 34 chapter International Building Code dealing specifically with life safety and fire in buildings include:

  • Chapter 3, Use and Occupancy
  • Chapter 4, Special Use and Occupancy
  • Chapter 5, General Building Height and Area Limitations
  • Chapter 6, Types of Construction
  • Chapter 7, Fire Resistant Rated Construction
  • Chapter 8, Interior Finishes
  • Chapter 9, Fire Protection Systems
  • Chapter 10, Means of Egress

6 related articles

view all 👀