Is the NFPA Code the Law or a Recommendation?
The NFPA shows how to design, build, and maintain a fire alarm system. The NFPA, though, is a non-profit organization. Governments use the NFPA as their law, and governments can and do enforce the NFPA Code.
The NFPA can't make rules or laws that we have to obey; the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is a citizen run organization.
By Douglas Krantz
In the United States, the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) fire codes are strange. They aren't codes; they're recommendations -- the NFPA has no authority.
To understand this, we'll look first at the rules of federal government rule making authorities. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), etc. were all formed by Acts of Congress.
They all receive their ability to make the rules that we live by from the Federal Government. The regulations that come down from these bodies overrule anything that could be handed down by local authorities.
Grass Roots Movement
On the other hand, the "Fire Codes" that we live by, written by the NFPA, aren't codes at all. As such, the Congress didn't authorize them to be written, State Governments didn't authorize them to be written, City Governments didn't authorize them to be written. Rather, the NFPA is a "Grass Roots", Citizen run, organization.
It was people deciding to do something long before the government decided to do something.
A Little History
Sometime near the end of the 19th century, before the federal government started making rules and regulations to make things safe for the populace, some people got together to figure out some fire safety suggestions and recommendations.
These suggestions were made particularly because of new protective sprinkling systems and the hazards of the then new electrical wiring, but as the years passed these suggestions included other fire hazards.
The people making recommendations had no authority, and in order to get others in the country to look at the recommendations, all they could do was form a publishing house. This was the start of the publishing house "National Fire Prevention Association" or NFPA.
Under the NFPA, they provided a fairly compete set of recommendations on how to accomplish fire protection.
Actually, at that time, Congress didn't have the authority to set up agencies to govern safety regulations; safety regulations were the responsibility of State governments.
Under the authority of the state governments, different governing bodies looked at the recommendations of the NFPA, and decided that the NFPA had better recommendations than they could form themselves. Instead of trying to "reinvent the wheel", so to speak, they took the NFPA's recommendations and adopted the recommendations as law.
Now, City governments, County governments, State governments, and many Federal government rule making authorities have pretty much decided to use the NFPA recommendations as their "code". This is partially because the recommendations are universal across the country, and partially because the recommendations of the NFPA are more complete than what the various governing bodies themselves can come up with.
The governing bodies usually have a few exceptions, additions, or changes to what the NFPA recommends, but for the most part, what the NFPA recommends is used as law by the governing bodies.
Recommendations Become Law
So the NFPA has no real authority; the NFPA recommends. Federal agencies, State governments and Local governments just say that the NFPA's recommendations are law -- that's the authority of the NFPA.