Application of the Fire Code to Existing Buildings

I remember the day like it was yesterday. As a fire code official with only a few years of experience I was assigned to a complaint inspection. In this situation, the details of the complaint were valid. The complaint revolved around an existing 200,000 square foot warehouse with high-piled storage and the business was adding on an additional 150,000 square feet of storage space. The problem? The building addition was designed by the local lumber company in town (no architect) and the owner had no intention to install fire sprinklers. After I concluded my inspection, I sat down with the owner of the company and told him about the fire code requirements; his response was, “well, I guess I’ll have to close the company”.

What authority do code officials have to enforce the fire code on existing buildings?

International Fire Code

International Fire Code

Legal authority given to code officials differs from state to state, but it is important for all stakeholders to understand the applicable laws relating to codes and their application to new and existing buildings. This blog will focus on areas in the International Fire Code (IFC) where, depending on the occupancy and activity occurring, the existing building (or a specific area in a building) may be subject to fire sprinkler requirements.

Operational and construction permits

Section 102.2 in the IFC states the operational provisions of the code apply to, “existing conditions and alterations”. This means if the business is performing an “operational” activity, there may be conditions outlined in the IFC when fire sprinklers are required, even for existing buildings. The term “operational” is not defined in the IFC. To correctly interpret the code, we must first determine how the IFC intends the operational criteria to be applied. Within Section 105, there is a lengthy list of activities that the fire code official is authorized to issue permits for. In this section the code identifies two different types of permits: operational and construction:

  • Construction permits only apply to new construction, such as new additions to existing buildings, or change of use and do not apply to existing conditions and operations (see IFC Section 102.1).
  • Operational permits are issued when the operation is regulated under the operational permit provisions in Section 105.5, the IFC considers that activity as operational, and subject to the retroactive provisions of Section 102.2.

When operational permits update to current code

                IFC Chapters 20-67 are considered operational provisions in the fire code. To confirm this, verify the activity (or chapter) is covered under the operational permit requirements in Section 105.5. If so, conclude that any fire sprinkler requirements found in these chapters are subject to the operational provisions in Section 102.2. Like the IFC, NFPA 1 (22) states in section that there are specific conditions, occupancies and systems that are retroactive.  Here are a few examples from NFPA 1 and the IFC where fire sprinkler requirements for existing buildings, operations, and activities are found:

  • Spray finishing rooms/booths in accordance With Section 2404.4 (see IFC Section 105.5.47)
  • High-piled storage when the conditions in Table 3206.2 are met (see IFC Section 105.5.24)
  • Storage, use, dispensing, and handling of flammable/combustible liquids when exceeding the maximum allowable quantity in accordance with Chapter 57 (see Section IFC 105.5.22)
  • Growing and processing of marijuana when subject to the fire sprinkler requirements in Chapter 13 (see NFPA 1 Section 38.1.1)

So, what does all this mean? This means there are certain operations, activities, and conditions identified in the fire codes deemed a higher hazard to life safety and property protection, that fire sprinklers must be installed, even if the business has existed for many years.

Fire codes protect local economies

                 The business that I was assigned to do the complaint inspection on employed 150 people in a town with approximately 500 people. What impact would a significant fire have on the lives of the 150 employees? To that community? To the economy in that area? Many of us have probably heard stories about a business that experienced a fire that did not rebuild in that community. Based on IFC Chapter 32, the owner was required to sprinkler both the new and existing buildings.

The owner needed to provide a plan of correction outlining how each code issue would be addressed and when each deficiency would be corrected.  After 5 years, the owner upgraded the water main to the building, installed a fire pump, and provided sprinkler protection throughout the new and existing building.  Achieving compliance took several years, but one thing is known for certain, the business is better protected today than it was before their addition.


NFSA staff work closely in the codes and standards development process through NFPA and the International Code Council touting the benefits of fire sprinklers in the built environment. Our team of experts stays on the forefront of fire protection issues. For more information on NFSA’s mission to protect lives and property through the widespread acceptance of the fire sprinkler concept, to learn more about the benefits of NFSA membership, or to join our association, please visit our membership page to learn more.