Fire code debate remains hazy

From left, Fire Inspector Tom Dunleavey and Fire Chief Ian Davis argue the safety advantages of the National Fire Prevention Association’s Fire Code 1 at a Marquette City Commission work session Monday evening, while commissioners Sarah Reynolds, Mike Plourde and Mike Conley look on. (Journal photo by Mary Wardell)

MARQUETTE — Even after a two-hour work session with the Marquette City Commission Monday evening, the smokescreen of confusion around a hotly contested city fire code hasn’t settled.

The issue finds the Marquette City Fire Department pitted against local developers, with each preferring a different code to address fire prevention in city buildings.

Fire Chief Ian Davis brought the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Code 1 before the commission in June saying the department has been following it since 1994, but, unbeknownst to him, it had never been formally adopted. That means the code is not legally defensible, Davis said.

Its legality was tested earlier this year when Mark Curran, of real estate developer Curran and Co., challenged a permit requirement by the fire department for additional water mains that would allow firefighters to source water onsite in case of a fire.

Construction on Curran’s Rippling River Resort Campground on M-553 by the ski hill is nearly complete.

From left, Lynn Swadley of Sunrise Builders and Mark Curran of Curran and Co. argue the advantages of the International Code Council’s International Fire Code as an alternative to the NFPA 1 recommended by the city fire department. (Journal photo by Mary Wardell)

Curran and Lynn Swadley of Sunrise Builders, also president of the Michigan Home Builder’s Association, have spoken adamantly against NFPA 1 and Monday presented their preferred alternative: the International Fire Code, created by the International Code Council.

“The NFPA and ICC are basically competing organizations,” Davis said. “They both promulgate codes. They both are adopted throughout the country. … They’re substantially similar in a lot of the requirements. When you’re looking at the difference, … the NFPA has a more comprehensive way of bringing the codes together. They use industry experts, Underwriters Laboratory service, where the ICC isn’t as broad-based. … It’s more code enforcement officials that write those codes. The NFPA has over 8,000 people and over 300 committees they’ve used.”

Swadley and Curran said the IFC is clearer and more black and white for developers, with fewer conflicts with the Michigan Building Code.

Both developers and fire officials agreed that the Michigan Building Code will always pre-empt any local ordinance, but developers claimed conflicts have to be fought in court.

Swadley said the only thing he can draw from the fire department’s push for NFPA-1 is for the “implied ability to mandate public water mains for fire suppression the fire chief deems that he wants as a condition of a zoning approval.”

Swadley said the remaining undeveloped land in the city needs water and sewer infrastructure or it won’t be developed, and he recommended “creative solutions for that so everyone can benefit.”

Davis said NFPA codes are already part of the city’s rental ordinance and the fire department wants to use it consistently for commercial buildings as well. The state adopted NFPA 1 in 2011, and all firefighters in the state of Michigan are trained under that code, he said. NFPA 1 pertains mostly to maintenance of a building, such as extension cords, space heaters, open flame devices, generators, and the storage of flammable and hazardous materials.

The main concern for new construction in the NFPA 1 pertains to water supply and firefighting access, which the Michigan Building Code does not address, Davis said.

“Without the ability to mandate (water supply and firefighting access), (developers) don’t have to (update the water supply systems) and then you’re stuck with substandard water supply and you’re basically inviting some bad things to happen,” Davis said. “If you don’t have a way to put the fire out, you’re leaving residents and visitors at risk.”

Significant amount of discussion was dedicated to rehashing the failed efforts for developers and the fire department to come to an agreement, in the absence of a code, on the Rippling River Resort Campground, which ultimately left the campground without any water supply for firefighters, Davis said.

Curran has pointed to the sprinkler systems, as required by the Michigan Building Code, but Davis said firefighters don’t wait for sprinklers to put out a structure fire.

Commissioners repeatedly asked for a significant difference between the two codes. Developers said their code is more “black and white,” while Davis said NFPA is the training standard that the department knows and has used for a long time, and provides the most effective fire prevention standards.

Commissioner Sarah Reynolds said she doesn’t think the two sides are going to suddenly agree.

“As commissioners now we have to decide, … and for me, I whole-heartedly agree with you Ian, I believe in you Ian, and I don’t not trust you, but I think at points in time, the reason this comes up is sometimes we’re looked at as unfriendly as a city, like to building people,” Reynolds said. “I think the hard part as commissioners is we still have to decide how we feel about this, and I still don’t know, listening to them, listening to you, doing my own research, formulating my own opinions, I still don’t know.”

Commissioner Mike Conley said Marquette Township has NFPA 1 and development there is flourishing.

“To me, that says a lot, it hasn’t stifled development out there, I don’t think we’re going to stifle it here,” Conley said, adding that he puts a lot of stock in the opinions of experts like Davis.

Mayor Pro Tem Tom Baldini said safety is a big concern, but the city does have a reputation of being over-regulated.

“So how do we come up with an evaluative system that protects safety but still looks at other possibilities as to how something’s going to be done. That’s way above my pay grade, but I think that’s the discussion we’re having,” Baldini said.

Curran asked the commission to consider the IFC side by side with the NFPA 1.

“What I would ask of you guys is get the two books in front of you and simply look at the indexes. You don’t have to read them, but at least you can kind of get the gist of how they’re covered with the detail they have,” Curran said.

Davis said the fire department is not out to slow development, and argued that regulatory codes like fence and sign ordinances are very different from life safety issues.

“All we’re saying is if you put something in, it has to be safe. It’s as simple as that,” Davis said. “We’re looking out for the residents, the visitors, the people that live in Marquette, that work in Marquette. We’re looking out for our own firefighters. If we don’t have that, … our guys are put at risk.”

Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is