National Fire Organization Says Its Employee Should Not Have Publicly Shared Opinion That Saugatuck Township's Change To Local Fire Code Endangers Residents', Firefighters' Lives
In an ongoing political and public relations battle, Saugatuck Township officials have been pressuring officials of the International Code Council (ICC) to retract written statements made by one of the organization’s own employees who found the township’s recent changes to the local fire codes could result in “astronomical loss of life” including the lives of local residents, firefighters and business owners.
The ICC oversees the use of the International Fire Code (IFC), a set of rules and guidelines for optimum fire safety which is adopted by fire departments and municipalities across the U.S. Saugatuck Township - and its fellow local fire district partners Saugatuck and Douglas - have for decades adopted and followed the IFC fire safety codes.
But last year, Saugatuck Township officials - first secretly -began rewriting the codes without local fire department involvement and raised complaints they were doing so to 1. benefit developers and 2. squeeze the fire department out of the decision-making process when it comes to approving developers’ building plans and place that authority with its own zoning and building and zoning official, Steve Kushion who has no experience, certification or expertise in fire protection issues and rules and regulations.
Saugatuck Township Fire Chief Greg Janik, a highly respected fire official who has been rated one of the top fire protection experts in the state by government officials, including Governor Rick Snyder, continues to warn the public and township officials that the township’s “watering down” and changes to the IFC for the local area “is a threat to the lives of the public and my firefighters. This is not a political issue for me. It is a safety issue and trying to protect the public.”
In a recent letter penned by Sara Yerkes, the ICC’s senior vice president of government relations, she did write to Kushion that her organization was retracting the earlier statement by Terrell Stripling, ICC’s Technical Staff/Education because Stripling should not have shared his comments publicly, but she also said her organization continues to encourage municipalities to adopt the IFC without amendments.
Yerkes, in her letter to Kushion, wrote:
Thank you for contacting the International Code Council. First, I’d like to apologize for any consternation that this incident has caused you or your department. We appreciate all you do on a regular basis to promote building safety and to ensure your community is a safe place to live.
The Code Council advocates for safe buildings and resilient communities. We encourage jurisdictions to adopt our codes without amendments.
The International Codes (I-Codes) are developed through a rigorous, consensus-based process that gives all parties the chance to present their input. They are updated on a regular basis and take into account the latest technologies and safety measures in the industry.
However, we believe it is the right of each jurisdiction to decide what is most appropriate for their local community. The I-Codes are model codes that are sometimes modified by the adopting jurisdictions depending on local circumstances. We encourage jurisdictions to thoroughly study the issues before making any amendments.
On behalf of the International Code Council, I retract the earlier statements made by an ICC staff member about the effects of the Saugatuck Township code changes. This statement was the opinion of an individual and should not have been shared in any official capacity as the view of the Code Council.
In actuality, we do not know what the consequences are for the changes your jurisdiction is considering. We do not know the specifics of your situation or have research about the outcomes of the changes. As indicated above, we believe these decisions are best made by the local jurisdictions.
Please let me know if you have any further questions.
Senior Vice President of Government Relations
International Code Council”
In a written response after learning of Yerke’s letter, Saugatuck Township Fire Chief Janik wrote:
“Please see the actual email I sent on January 24, 2018 to Mr. Terrell Stripling, ICC Technical Staff/Educator, followed by his response. I encourage you to read the email to have a clear understanding of what took place.
There was no phone discussion, everything was in writing. There was no hidden agenda, just sharing public information. I asked for a perspective on the impact of this modification and I received a candid response.
The objective of the Fire District is to preserve the integrity of the International Fire Code (IFC) for the benefit of our citizens, firefighters and emergency responders.
The IFC is a comprehensive fire code that establishes minimum requirements consistent with national recognized good practice for a reasonable level of safety and property protection.
However, the (Saugatuck) township proceeded to reduce or eliminate these minimum requirements. In some cases, minimum requirements were diluted when incorporated into the township zoning ordinance.
Fire and emergency incidents are inevitable in communities, as history and data indicate. A fundamental solution is to mitigate fire and emergency incidents before they occur with fire prevention/code enforcement, and strive to learn critical lessons that exist from these and other tragic events to ensure that those whom we are sworn to protect have better chances of survival.
Fire codes are not meant to be tailored to accommodate managers, board members, contractors or zoning administrators. They’re meant to protect people and property.
In my opinion, the email from Ms. Sarah Yerkes reaffirms my position that the township modifications to the 2015 IFC were not developed by a rigorous, consensus-based process that takes into account the latest technology and safety measures.
Ms. Sara Yerkes laudably advances Code Council positions aimed at safe buildings and resilient communities.
In her May 21, 2018 email, she comments that the ICC encourages jurisdictions to adopt ICC codes without amendments and that the International Codes (I-Codes) are developed through a rigorous, consensus-based process, and gives all parties a chance to present their input.
Further reference is made to regular updating of the I-Codes and takes into account the latest technologies and safety measures in the industry basis.
I acknowledge Ms. Sara Yerkes’ comments that it is the right of each jurisdiction to decide what is most appropriate for their local community and that sometimes they are modified by the adopting jurisdictions. However, I do not feel this is right thing to do.
This is a Fire District and unilateral actions do not serve the citizens or its partners. The ICC encourages jurisdictions to thoroughly study the issues before making any amendments.
However, I do not feel this has occurred. The township modified the IFC based on several complaints from builders, less than 1% of the township population was the basis of the modification.
Saugatuck Township Fire District (Fire District) is the separate governmental body that possesses the experience, credentials and qualifications to implement modifications, if needed.
The Fire District knows what is appropriate for our communities. We know the area by responding to thousands of emergency incidents. We know for a fact that modern construction materials, synthetic furnishings and large square feet homes produce high-heat, fast moving fires resulting in occupant escape times reduced to less than three (3) minutes.
Moreover, fire apparatus road issues further complicate quick and efficient emergency responses. We know our aging population requires rapid emergency medical response and minutes can be a mater of life or death. Why would anyone risk our residents’ lives or quality of life because of several complaints?
In my opinion, the township trustees and zoning administrator are not qualified to make modifications to fire codes.
The most notable comments offered by Ms. Sara Yerkes refer to the unknown consequences of the changes.
In actuality, the ICC does not know what the consequences are for the changes, and the ICC does not know the specifics or have research about the outcomes of the changes. Again, why would anyone risk not knowing the consequences of the township changes to the IFC?
The response (from Stripling) was shared as it is public information and was not presented for any other reason.
Please consider the following:
The township modified minimum requirements for providing a reasonable level of safety and property protection, and provide a reasonable level of safety to fire fighters and emergency responders.
I asked for technical assistance on the International Fire Code (IFC) 2015 code modification, specifically from Mr. Terrell Stripling and not the International Code Council.
A copy of the actual township modification to IFC 102.5, Application of residential code, was sent to Mr. Terrell Stripling for his review and response.
My comments expressing major concerns and notable highlights were included.
I did not receive a request for additional information.
My email requests Mr. Terrell Stripling’s perspective on the impact of this modification.
I received a candid response from Mr. Terrell Stripling on January 31, 2018.
I was not contacted by Ms. Sarah Yerkes.
The response to my request of review to IFC 102.5 is public information that was necessary to share and not to be withheld.
My position on the township modification to the 2015 IFC has not changed. In my opinion, the township’s modifications are unwise, increase risks to citizens and fire fighters, and is incompatible with Community Risk Reduction.
Fire Chief/Fire Marshal
Saugatuck Township Fire District
Township officials say they don’t believe their changes to the fire code will endanger lives or property.