THE GRENFELL TOWER fire in London has cast a spotlight on fire safety regulations around the world. While the United States has often been singled out as a virtuous example, not all U.S. jurisdictions should be applauded just yet. Some, including Virginia and the District of Columbia, have chosen not to require a key fire safety test designed to weed out combustible cladding — the same type of material that helped fuel the blaze in London.
Most building codes in the United States are modeled after the International Building Code, which was amended in 2012 to require a test on exterior cladding for buildings more than 40 feet in height. But when the District updated its code in 2013, it responded to industry concern and carved out testing exemptions, including for buildings with sprinkler systems.
Virginia also deleted some testing requirements and exempted buildings with sprinklers. The preponderance of tall buildings in the state made this a particularly risky decision: Sprinklers will do little to extinguish exterior fires, which can obstruct escape routes and impede the access of first responders. The revised code was so controversial that Virginia’s Bureau of Capital Outlay Management publicly disagreed with it and reversed the rule change for all state-owned buildings.
Critics of the test cited its high cost, the difficulty of finding compliant material and the fact that these precautions might be “redundancies.” But other states and counties have managed to enforce the code for years. Experts have also pointed out the need for multiple safety measures to combat different fire threats.
Under a directive from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs says it will update its regulations and reinstate the testing provision. This conversation is worth having everywhere, and Virginia should consider following the District’s lead.
Though a disaster on the scale of Grenfell Tower is unlikely to happen in the United States, we were offered a stark reminder of the importance of fire safety late last month when a fatal fire broke out in a Northwest D.C. apartment. There is no excuse for complacency. As tragically shown in London, economizing measures may reduce costs — until there is a mishap and officials must cope with property damage, displacement and even loss of life. This is an eventuality that regulatory agencies should take care to avoid.