San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New Fire Codes Draw Criticism

NEW fire codes for buildings, now under moreintense scrutiny after a July 12 fire in a San José hospitalclaimed 19 lives, are impractical and too costly,construction-industry insiders say.The Costa Rican Construction Chamber has thrownits support behind two independently filed requeststhat the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court(Sala IV) overturn the codes. While Sala IV justicesruled against one request last week, the other remainsunder consideration. The Federated Association ofEngineers and Architects (CFIA) plans to help thechamber hammer out a more practical set of codes withthe National Insurance Institute (INS), which passed the controversial regulations in January.The insurance institute, which overseesthe National Firefighters Corps, officiallyimplemented the U.S. National FireProtection Association’s 14 hefty volumesof building-safety recommendations, witha few additions of its own.“IT adopts them in a complete way, andwe believe it should not be done like that,”construction chamber president JaimeMolina said. “The norms should be made byspecialists who know the reality of this country,what kind of investment that implies, theeconomy we have, and so forth.”The Sala IV rejected one of the fire codecases last week on the grounds thatEduardo Armijo, the man who presented it,was not affected by the issue. Armijo, anengineer specializing in fire protection,responded this week that court justices“must not have finished reading it.“I didn’t ask for the norms to be rejected– rather, that they be studied for a time,”he told The Tico Times.He called for a group of fire-safetyspecialists from the architects and engineers’association to review building plans,rather than officials from INS – an institutionthat, according to Armijo, is overextendedand should focus on inspections,not building plans.“It’s illogical for a specialist not toreview building plans,” he said. “It (theruling) affects me because I’m a fire (safety)professional.”ARMIJO agrees the U.S. association’scodes are effective in preventingand controlling fires, but, like Molina,says a call to suddenly bring all of thecountry’s buildings up to those standardsis unrealistic.INS, however, argues this is not a suddenmove.“The norms are the same as they havebeen since 1994,” INS firefighter engineerWalter Jiménez told The Tico Times,explaining that while the regulations werenot offially adopted until January, the institutehas used them in evaluating buildingplans for 11 years.This means the more than 3,000 buildingsbuilt since 1994 are up to U.S. standards– at least on paper.“Because of a lack of staff, we don’tinspect every building,” he said. In fact, headded, INS has inspected only 227 buildingssince 1994.ARMIJO said the government institute,which has a monopoly on insurancein Costa Rica, should do more post-constructioncheckups and inspect buildingsperiodically to test fire-safety systems andkeep building-maintenance workers ontheir toes.Most buildings do not comply, Armijoand architect Hernán Hernández told TheTico Times, including several landmarkssuch as the Central Bank, which Armijosaid is “50%” up to standard, and the INSbuilding itself, which he said meets 70% ofthe U.S. requirements (INS engineerJiménez said it fully complies).Speaking from the construction chamber’sheadquarters in southeast San José,both men pointed out ways the chamber’sbuilding also droops in the glare of theU.S. Fire-Protection Association’s code.The area of Hospital Calderón Guardiathat burned July 12, killing 16 patients andthree nurses, did not have fire escapes oralarms (TT, July 15).ONE of the construction chamber’scomplaints is that existing buildings cannotwiden a hallway, for example, to meetU.S. standards.“You would almost have to build thebuildings over from scratch,” the chamber’sexecutive director, Randall Murillo,told The Tico Times. “Even in advancedcountries, the norms for new buildingsdiffer from those for existing buildings.We aren’t against safety measures inbuildings; we want them to be stricter. Weare saying it’s technically impossible tomeet some of the conditions. As for thingslike making an evacuation plan and markingall the exits and stairs, that should beobligatory.”Jiménez said INS would give the existingbuildings time to comply, but did notspecify how much.CONSTRUCTION firm ViviconConstrucción, S.A. filed a request for aninjunction with the Sala IV criticizingINS’ lack of foresight, pointing out that thenew codes are not available in Spanish.The court upheld that part of the complaint,but the safety regulations are still ineffect, according to the daily La Nación.Jiménez called the language issue “anexcuse” in light of the fact that the regulationshave been in use here for decades.The U.S. volumes are updated every fiveyears and would be too costly to translatethat often, he added.The chamber recommends adopting aset of codes that are tailored to the country’seconomic situation, created by acommittee of officials from the chamber,INS, and the architects and engineers’association. The end result should bepublished in Costa Rica, in Spanish,making the codes accessible even to non-English speakers.“The American codes are, of course,excellent, and have been in force in theUnited States for more than 120 years,”Armijo said. “When they were made,they were put into use one by one. Buthere, what INS, via the firefighters,wants is that 14 books, each with 700pages, be inserted into the minds of ourengineers, electricians, mechanics andindustrialists, and be put to use immediately.I believe we should use the internationalcodes, but slowly.”OLMAN Vargas, executive director ofthe architects and engineers’ association,scoffed at the suggestion that most buildingsare up to U.S. standards.“I think there are many things to do.The private buildings comply with all thesafety measures, but the public buildingsdo not,” he told The Tico Times.He and members of his associationplan to begin inspections of fire-safetymeasures in public hospitals next month asa community service. They will presenttheir recommendations to hospital authoritiesby the end of the year, he said.They also would like to sit on the committeethat creates Costa Rica’s new buildingcodes. The U.S. codes contain double safetymeasures, he said. His association backs thecreation of less rigid codes that, for example,would broaden the distance between smokealarms, but would still require automaticsprinklers in every commercial and residentialbuilding of a certain size.He said he expects INS officials willlisten to their proposal and cooperate.

Comments are closed.