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OUR OPINION: Code change calls for risk analysis

The next time Grand Forks officials must decide whether to relax a building code, here's the key question they should ask:

What is the level of risk?

Risk assessment is part-and-parcel of medicine, engineering, aviation and many other fields. In each case, analysts weigh the benefits of any proposal -- such as whether seat belts should be required on school buses -- against the costs.

So, ideally in each case, analysts first try to determine those benefits and costs as precisely as possible.

On Monday night, the Grand Forks City Council was scheduled to vote on a code requirement that "dictates lightweight construction should be covered by materials such as drywall" ("Groups at odds on proposed code change," Page A1, Nov. 29).

Local builders say the requirement boosts costs -- for example, by about $1,400 per basement.

Fire officials say the rule protects firefighters and residents alike by slowing the spread of a fire.

At this editorial's press time, the vote's outcome was uncertain. But here's hoping that before council members voted, they asked for more information, including:

Have other cities eased the drywall requirement? What has been their experience? Are firefighters there lobbying for the rule's return, citing evidence that it notably lessens the dangers they face?

In other words, can rule-makers get a better idea of the level of risk?

Many Grand Forks businesses are required to have sprinklers; meanwhile, most houses are not. Risk analysis lies at the heart of those rules, and that's the kind of thinking that code-change proposals need, too.