Work successfully with code officials to gain tent installation permits.
By David A. MacArthur
Pulling permits to erect tents can be like trying to hit a moving target because different code enforcement officers and fire department inspectors interpret codes differently. Understanding ahead of time what individual inspectors are looking for and why, along with trends in code enforcement, will help anyone who has to pull permits for tent installations to do so in a smooth and timely manner.
Temporary or semipermanent tents and structures carry with them the potential for catastrophic loss and life safety concerns that can result in nightmarish contingent legal liabilities that threaten a tent rental company’s very existence. The public and all municipal jurisdictions where tents are installed must be protected against unsafe practices; therefore fire marshals and building code officials require detailed information about proposed tent installations before the erecting process begins. It’s all for the public good.
A person responsible for obtaining permits needs to understand where and how to pull permits from these officials, the applicable building and fire codes, and how to complete the permit application to the satisfaction of the permitting officials. Issuing the permit is a code officer’s way of saying, “I believe this will be a safe project. You may proceed along the lines you have presented.” Complete and accurate information about an installation streamlines the permitting process. Rental companies seeking permits need to allow enough time in the planning of a particular project to accumulate all of the information required on the permit application and for the appropriate officials to review and approve the application. As they say, patience is a virtue.
Which codes are we dealing with?
The 2009 International Fire Code (IFC) requires that temporary tents and structures that cover more than 200 square feet must receive a permit before they may be installed or occupied by the public. Building department officers and fire marshals will issue permits to install tents when they receive written affirmation that the materials in the tent (including tent membranes, floor coverings and liners) are flame retardant in accordance with NFPI 701 (flame certificates). The permitting officer will also usually need to see a site plan for the event and see that the tent will have a prescribed minimum number of exits with battery-powered exit signs, that there is a minimum number of accessible fire extinguishers, that tent occupancy will not exceed a predetermined number of people and that the tent is not located too close to property lines or other structures on the property.
All of this (and sometimes more) information must be presented to the permitting official by whoever is assigned the job of pulling the permit. Michael Marchialette, event management director for Classic Party Rentals–Chicago spends many hours pulling permits for his company’s numerous projects, usually starting with the building department office in the appropriate jurisdiction.
“Most of the time, we have already dealt with the building code official in the municipality where we are going to be doing the job,” Marchialette says. “For many of the places where we do work (130 to 140 different municipalities), we already know who to call for permitting and what info that person will require in order for us to get the required permit.”
The other primary code that tent rental companies may need to comply with is the International Building Code (IBC), the most widely referenced guideline for installations of temporary structures and tents by building code officials. The IBC applies to temporary venues of more than 400 square feet.
According to Steve Fatzinger, industry consultant and senior professional engineer with Lightweight Design Inc. of Allentown, Pa., the 2006 version of the IBC is still the most commonly referenced edition of the IBC by building code officials even though a newer edition was released in 2009. Both versions of the IBC refer to ASCE7-05, a manual of building design, engineering and construction standards produced by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
“From the structural design aspect of things, there is very little change (from 2006 to 2009) as they both refer to the ASCE7-05 for the design criteria that should be used on the structure,” Fatzinger says.
What’s going to be enforced?
One of the most frustrating aspects of pulling permits is that the information officials want to know about an installation varies from one municipality to another. In some jurisdictions, the building office doesn’t get involved with permitting at all. Harold Sater, owner of A&A Tent Productions, Shreveport, La., says that most of the time, he obtains permits for tent installations from the fire department that has jurisdiction over an event’s location. Seldom does the building department become involved.
“But depending on where we go for the event, different information may be requested by the fire marshal’s office,” Sater says. “They always want to see a fire cert. for the tent’s fabrics and a site plan for the event. Some stop there. Others ask for plans of egress, and once in a while if the tent is a large one, they might ask for structural information about the tent we are going to set up, which we get from the manufacturer. They want to know it will take a big wind.”
When dealing with building code and fire department officials and inspectors, the rental company pulling the permit must respect the officials’ need to receive complete information before issuing a permit. This includes:
- A site plan drawing showing the property’s dimensions, locations and sizes of buildings on the property, parking lots, nearest fire hydrants and of course the number, sizes and types of tents that will be erected and where they will each be located on the property.
- Copies of flame retardancy certificates that confirm the materials in the tents all meet the NFPI 701 standards. Some locations will accept (even demand) that materials also be certified flame retardant in accordance with the California Fire Marshal’s testing requirements. These certificates are supplied by the tent manufacturer, which receives the information from its materials suppliers.
- Evidence of a written and communicated evacuation plan in the event of emergency such as high wind or fire.
- Dates of the event, installation times and intended duration of the tents’ presence on the property.
Fatzinger suspects that variations in enforcement are partially based on an official’s comfort and experience level with fabric structures. Current events also contribute to enforcement levels.
“I am getting more requests to provide structural calculations, especially on the larger structures,” he says. “This seems to have started with the media attention to the collapse of the Dallas Cowboys’ practice facility [in May 2009].”
As tent sizes increase, the potential for catastrophic loss also increases. With larger tents, a building department’s code officer may require additional technical information to support the issuance of a permit to erect and occupy. That information may include an acceptable electrical plan, an adequate restroom accommodation and locations plan, and proof of adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines (5-foot long wheelchair landings, acceptable 12:1 ramp inclines and allowable 42-inch high door handle locations, to name a few relevant sections of the act).
For public events in particular, a code officer may require documentation showing that the equipment to be used is engineered and constructed to withstand minimum wind forces per the IBC guidelines for temporary tents and structures (see “Understanding Engineered Tents” in the April 2011 issue of InTents). The code officer may also want to review an anchoring plan that details what anchors will be used and proof that their working loads will meet or exceed the tent’s shear and uplift base loads at all anchor points.
With the shocking collapse of the stage structure at the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis in August 2011, where seven people were killed and many more seriously injured, tent renters and event producers may expect to have to prove more frequently that their temporary tents and structures meet IBC requirements for wind resistance and that planned anchoring will be sufficient to meet the structure’s base loads where ground anchoring points exist.
A successful approach to satisfying any code officer is to offer comprehensive information in a timely manner about the event and the tents that will be installed. Plan ahead and ask for support and technical information from your tent manufacturer. And most importantly, help the code officer understand and come to the conclusion that your tent company cares about safety and is willing to meet all required safety criteria.