How safe are you?

No matter which building students use to study, eat, live or visit with friends, they are in a facility inspected by state or university officials.

Mike Larew, fire safety engineer for VCU’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety, said fire-safety inspections are done in accordance with the uniform statewide building and fire-prevention codes.

The inspections, Larew said, cover every aspect of the buildings – from making sure electrical systems are not overloaded to seeing that proper exit paths are cleared. The degree of inspection, however, changes depending on the different uses of the rooms in a building.

“The inspection of laboratories would be different from the inspection of a standard classroom,” he said, mainly because labs contain more varied and detailed equipment and safety concerns. For instance, a chemistry lab contains more flammable properties than does a computer lab or a lecture hall.

One of two different groups conducts the yearly inspections of buildings depending on their use and structure. VCU’s buildings are owned by the state or the VCU Real Estate Foundation. Since the state owns the dormitories, the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development is responsible for inspecting these facilities.

“The city has no jurisdiction on the dorms,” said Wayne Beachy, fire-safety inspector for the housing and community development department.

VCU’s foundation not only owns the other buildings, such as classrooms and offices, but it also leases them to the university. The fire and occupational safety office in VCU’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety inspects these privately owned buildings as well as conducts an additional inspection of the dormitories.

Virginia’s municipalities follow the same set of fire codes mandated by the state’s housing and community development department. Since April 1997, the state has followed the 1996 Building Officials and Code Administrators International Inc. fire-prevention code as its standard fire code.

“Localities cannot adopt a different code other than the state-adopted set,” Beachy said, adding that there are many different sets of fire codes available that Virginia could have selected.

Jack Proctor, deputy director of the housing and community development department, said the state has used BOCA codes since 1973. Proctor said the commonwealth chose BOCA because most engineers in Virginia already were familiar with the organization’s codes.

“We have a long standing relationship with BOCA,” he said.

The 1996 BOCA fire-prevention code specifies fire-prevention requirements. For example, BOCA specifies that all exit signs be “located at exit doors or exit access areas so as to be readily visible (by those needing to be evacuated).” It also stipulates the specific colors and sizes of the letters on exit signs plus the spacing between the letters.

Ron Faulconer, assistant city fire marshal, said the fire marshal does not get involved in the inspection process until after a certificate of occupancy is approved. After a certificate of occupancy goes into effect, he said, fire marshals basically inspect buildings to ensure that the fire prevention equipment is maintained.

“The fire code in Virginia is a maintenance code,” Faulconer said.

BOCA, a nonprofit organization, consists of members of the international construction community devoted to public safety.

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