Firestopping Comes of Age

Bill McHugh

June 1, 2003

What was once a small specialty application is now a very important part of the passive fire and life safety program in buildings. Passive fire protection (fire walls and floors) "holes" and consequential fire travel, have been squelched by firestopping systems that seal those fire resistance rated assemblies. As engineers review the aftermath of recent disasters in the Rhode Island nightclub fire, the Connecticut Greenwood Nursing Home fire and others, a call for more compartmentation, with "passive fire and life safety protection" seems to be heard from many angles as a way to better protect our friends, family and future.

The purpose of this article is to discuss new, revolutionary programs in the passive fire and life safety industry, with emphasis on firestop systems. Firestop Contractors International Association (FCIA), FM 4991 and the American Society of Testing Materials (ASTM) E 2174 are the key topics on which we’ll focus. These tools are meant to provide better, more quantifiable guidelines to the architect, general or subcontractor, and owner who needs to specify and purchase installed firestopping.

What is Firestopping?

Firestop systems consist of a tested and listed fire resistive construction (wall, floor or roof assembly), the penetrating item(s) and gap or expansion/walltop joint. They also consists of the products used to seal the opening against fire ("F"), temperature transmission ("T"), and fire test assembly air leakage ("L") (air leakage optional and available only at Underwriters Laboratories [UL] as of May, 2002) to the non-fire side of the assembly, when tested to ASTM E814, UL 1479 or UL 2079. The firestop assembly, installed to very specific instructions, is fire tested, simulating actual conditions in burning buildings. The test results in "F" and "T", as well as "L" ratings. "L" ratings, or air leakage ratings, are the industry standard for the ability to "smoke seal" penetrations. Smoke travel in buildings, sometimes through unprotected openings in fire/smoke rated construction, can be a large life safety risk to a building’s occupants and property through smoke damage and the inability to see clearly during building evacuation.

"L" ratings are performed at two temperature levels, ambient and at 400 degrees Fahrenheit (F). The ambient temperature simulates cold smoke movement in non-fire areas of a building. Testing at 400 degrees F approximates "hot" smoke, closer to the fire. The firestop system materials will perform differently in each condition as well. Intumescent systems, at 400 degrees F, may already be expanding to fill voids, providing a seal that prevents movement through the opening area.

The "L" rating is judged best when the leakage number is low. Currently, the lowest available "L" rating in the UL Fire Resistance Directory is <1 CFM/SF opening area. "L" ratings are affected by many factors. Cables, for instance, may not be sealed completely in spaces between cables, meaning a higher CFM/SF of air passing through the cold seal at ambient. If intumescent materials are used in the system, the "L" rating CFM/SF of air sometimes reduces at the 400 degrees F measurement level.

"L" ratings first appeared in UL’s Fire Resistance Directory in 1994. UL 1479 currently is the only firestop testing protocol to incorporate "L" ratings into their systems. ASTM E 814 is to have "L" ratings added to their testing protocol shortly, however. "However, ‘L’ ratings are receiving more attention and are showing up in specifications," says Alec Rexroat of IMICO, Inc., Schaumburg, Ill. (and also the Illinois Regional Insulation Contractors Association’s executive director). "For our hospital work, using firestop systems with "L" ratings is critical to patient safety and specification requirements."

Perimeter fire containment systems are used at the outside edge of the building to prevent vertical spread of fire through internal gaps between the fire rated floor assembly and the outside (usually non rated) skin of the building. These systems are tested to a different, but similar test to ASTM E 814, in a multistory testing apparatus professional firestopping contractors install tested and listed firestop systems to provide effective compartmentation to buildings. The concept of "compartmentation" limits the spread of fire from the room of origin by "sealing the area off." Sprinkler systems limit the spread of fire by controlling its size in the room of origin. However, as the sprinkler system controls the fire, smoke is produced. Compartments, if not sealed with "L" rated firestop systems, will allow smoke to travel into areas where people may be evacuating.

Additionally, firestopping contractors are involved in other types of passive fire protection, including protection of grease and air ducts as well as life safety electrical or communications cables.

"Firestopping" is an interesting trade. It’s one of the few where general construction tolerances are unacceptable. Variances to tested and listed systems may create a life safety risk as the system may or may not perform under actual fire conditions.

The main firestop testing laboratories have experienced significant growth in the last decade. New test methods, like the multistory test apparatus for perimeter joints, UL 2079 for walltop systems, "L" ratings, and competitive needs, have all brought manufacturers to the testing labs to create new tested and listed systems, UL, Omega Point Laboratories and Warnock Hersey, have all experienced growth in firestop testing.

Manufacturers need growth

George Starsmeare of W.R. Grace & Co., a Cambridge, Mass. -based specialty firm that already participates in structural steel fireproofing, says, "Wall Street wants sales growth from firms. W.R. Grace entered firestopping [because] there is a correlation to our fireproofing business." Starsmeare believes that as the fireproofing business matures, opportunities for further sales growth will come from product lines closely associated with fireproofing. "We at Grace see the firestopping market much like the fireproofing business of 30 years ago. There have been few industry standards of quality to judge an installation or qualify a contractor until recently. FCIA and IFC (International Firestop Council) are positive moves towards the quality recognition the building community needs for the firestopping industry to continue its growth."

Contractor Qualifications

Until recently, the firestop industry’s primary growth was in material sales to electricians, plumbers, sprinkler contractors, low voltage contractors, masons, drywallers, and some specialty firestop firms. Although it looks simple, firestopping is a highly technical, very complex installation. For those firms who have specialized in the application, projects install quickly and efficiently. For those who don’t understand the "zero tolerance" program, installations can be disastrous. Once installed, firestops are either covered with drywall or hidden behind/above a wide array of service items, pipes, ducts, cables and other components.

FCIA Manual of Practice

FCIA spent the better part of two years writing its Manual of Practice (MOP), a compilation of firestopping knowledge written by FCIA members and staff. The manual is also the basis for the FM 4991 Designated Responsible Individual (DRI) Examination for firestopping professionals to prove themselves as technically competent. The MOP provides a resource for industry education, whether its a firestop contractor firm, manufacturer, distributor or architect.

Firestop Contractor Qualifications

Architects and owners have been trying to define how to "qualify" a firestop contractor for a specific project or application. Typical qualification language in specifications for other disciplines, such as roofing, request a "manufacturer approved contractor", "contractor that has performed on similar projects within 100 miles," and/or "manufacturer willingness to sell material doesn’t qualify contractor for work."

FCIA and FM 4991

The Firestop Contractors International Association recognized the need for a "contractor qualification" program as it started in 1999. The solution was for FCIA to develop, in conjunction with FM Approvals, FM 4991 Standard for Approval of Firestop Contractors. This program, a quality process program specifically designed for firestopping contractors, requires specific, tangible installation procedures that the firestop contractor follows routinely on its projects. FM 4991 is to the subcontracting industry what "ISO 14000" is to the general contracting industry. Sophisticated building owners, many who are "ISO 9000 certified quality firms," are starting to insist that their building contractors be certified to a quality process as well.

Why use an FM 4991 Approved Firestop Contractor?

"FCIA Member, FM 4991 Approved Firestop Contractor firms have made the commitment to control their processes. We have seen benefits to using FM 4991 in our firm" states Aedan Gleeson, FCIA Accreditation chair, and FCIA’s first president.

As a result, life safety is provided by these specialty firestop contractor firms who choose to become FM 4991 approved. Blase Reardon of A.F. Underhill, Inc., Canton, Mass. (an FM 4991 approved firm), says, "FM 4991 approval is a good business investment, from a leading authority. You get recognition by a major entity like FM. Other investments in business can’t match up with this recognition. Firms that pass the rigorous audit testing by FM are committed to life safety and quality by ‘putting their money where their mouth is.’ It costs the firm between $4,000 and $6,000 to become approved by FM, not including the time taken away from operations for quality manual production and people training and adjustment to function in this ‘zero tolerance environment’."

Gleeson, whose firm, Gleeson Powers, Inc., Franklin, Mass, is an FM approved firestop contractor, says, "FM 4991 is win, win, win from all points." Gleeson believes that to a building inspector and fire marshal, an FM approved contractor means a professional is on the job, translating to less worries. Architects can specify requirements for the project with that simple phrase, "use an FM 4991 approved contractor firm to install firestopping." According to Gleeson, it’s in everyone’s best interest to use a specialty subcontractor because single source responsibility means less coordination and less chance for errors. When using multiple trades to handle firestopping, every trade on the job could be doing firestopping. "Firestopping installed by an FM 4991 approved firestop contractor is more likely to be done right the first time, and not leave the construction and owner team waiting for certificate of occupancy at the end of the project."

Manufacturer members of the firestop industry agree with the firestop contractors. Charbel Tagher, president of Specified Technologies, Inc., Somerville, N.J., (and the first manufacturer member to join FCIA), says, "Firestopping has come from just a paragraph in a specification to a complete spec section. It’s really unusual to run into someone who doesn’t know about firestopping." Tagher mentions that many architects, owners and general contractors are aware that firestopping is a life safety item requiring a properly trained person and well-qualified firm in the specification. Additionally, "having a specialized trade is crucial to the success of the industry, and FM 4991 is a key component of having this specialization. Contractors are bound by the specifications, and owners and specifiers have an obligation to assure that the specification requires steps for life safety. FM 4991, independent inspection, and a proper specification set up the ‘level of quality’ by which an owner or contractor purchases firestopping."

W.R. Grace’s Starsmeare agrees that FM 4991 is an important issue for FCIA and the firestopping industry. "We have FM 4991 in our sample firestop architectural specification that is promoted nationwide. This promotion means that the industry will continue to need more FM 4991 contractors as knowledge of the program’s value spreads." Starsmeare believes that "FM 4991, combined with independent inspection of firestopping, are critical to growth and credibility in the firestop industry."

Ray Usher (an FCIA board member) of Superl, Inc., Fridley, Minn., says that FM 4991 raises the bar for firestop contracting, nationwide. "Look for this standard to set the stage for future associations trying to improve quality in their programs," he says. FM 4991, Standard for the Approval of Firestop Contractors, is available from FCIA at www.fcia.org.

Architectural Specifications

Architects have focused on the firestop section of their specifications. Architects’ specification requirements currently may include the following key items:

New Standard for Firestop Inspection

ASTM has developed an inspection standard for installed firestops. ASTM Subcommittee E06.21, is a task group chaired by FCIA board member, Don Sabrsula of FireSafe of Houston, Inc. The task group has developed ASTM E2174-01 Standard Practice for On-Site Inspection of Installed Fire Stops (for through penetration firestops only). Another ASTM standard for fire resistive joints is being written by another task group, according to Sabrsula. Additionally, fire marshals and code officials could use either standard during their normal inspections, or require that independent, third party inspectors use it as well.

Once the process of firestop inspection has been set, using ASTM E2174-01, the inspector firm needs qualifications, just as the firestopping contractor who has taken the time to become FM 4991 approved. FCIA is working with ASTM to develop an inspection program that qualifies firestop inspector firms. "There is nothing more frustrating than an inspector firm who doesn’t understand what to look for in firestopping," says Gleeson and Randy Bosscawen, both of Multi Con Fire Containment, Columbus, Ohio.

Summary

Compartmentation is vitally important to the fire and life safety plan in a building. Building code height and area tables have changed and allow larger floor plans with less compartmentation since the International Building Code 2000 and the National Fire Protections Association 5000 have been developed. Cities such as Phoenix, Ariz., have recognized this, and reinserted the tougher uniform building code 97 tables, to better protect occupants by using effective compartmentation and active fire protection such as sprinklers and alarms.

For my money, I’m staying in hotels that have plenty of both types of fire protection, sprinklers and effective compartmentation-passive fire and life safety systems-so that if some knucklehead smokes in bed and starts a fire below me, it’s controlled by sprinklers, and compartmented by fire floors/walls and firestopping so I can get out of the building alive!

Portions of this article may have appeared in Commercial Buildings magazine.