Some Thoughts on Improving Fire and Smoke Protection

Bill McHugh

June 1, 2003

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the views of the National Insulation
Association.

Over the past few months, national attention has been brought to tragedies at nightclubs in Chicago and West Warwick, R.I., as well as a nursing home fire in Hartford, Conn., at the Greenwood Health Center. Each event led to deaths of innocent people who weren’t able to exit a building quickly enough to beat smoke, fire or trampling crowd surges. We’ve heard the call for "something to prevent this from happening" numerous times in the press. So far, the "something" has been a call for, and in Boston for the adoption of sprinkler systems. As there was no call for more passive fire protection, it seems that sprinklers are supposed to provide the building space the "save all" to prevent tragedies. Non-combustible construction components, which could provide protection against pyrotechnics, and other unauthorized flammables in and around occupied spaces, would provide fire and life safety protection as well.

No ‘Single Savior’

According to basic common sense, nothing can be a "single savior" in this fight for fire and life safety in buildings. Sprinkler systems are excellent tools to control fires, not stop them or "contain them." When a sprinkler system activates, its water misting action controls the fire, and creates smoke that can travel, causing loss of sight during egress, and death if the smoke is toxic. These sprinkler systems come in various forms for every type of occupancy.

"Fire protection by automatic sprinklers assumes that a there will be water available at sufficient pressure to deliver a spray of water to the fire area, be close enough to the heat source to either melt a fusible element or fracture a glass bulb, and have an orifice size, response characteristic, deflector and temperature rating to melt and subsequently release some type of tension mechanism to operate the standard sprinkler," according to a PM Engineer magazine article. Additionally, a fast response, complete "suppression" system will suppress a fire quickly, but may not put it out completely.

Passive fire and life safety systems are fire and smoke resistance rated assemblies ("or fire barriers such as drywall, concrete walls and floors, combination wood and lightweight concrete floor and ceiling tile/drywall assemblies, and concrete block walls, that stop fire from leaping into other areas. Together with systems meant to seal service items penetrating these walls and floors, (firestopping, fire and smoke dampers, fire doors) these fire protection features create "compartments." In exit corridors, these compartments provide protection for building occupants as they egress from a building during fire conditions. In building compartments, they protect people and contain fire in the area of origin until either sprinklers control the blaze, or building, fire service personnel fully extinguish the blaze. The sprinkler system may also extinguish the fire, but it’s not designed to completely douse the fire.

In the Hartford nursing home fire, according to the Associated Press, "patients were moved to another area of the building" that wasn’t affected by the fire. A woman describing her fire experience to her daughter over the phone stated, "and I heard the fire doors closing" In other words, areas were protected by fire resistance rated construction, firestop systems, and smoke protection. These passive fire-protected "fire and smoke compartments" of fire doors, fire dampers and fire walls proved effective, allowing people to remain safe in protected spaces.

In the Firestop Contractors International Association’s (FCIA) opinion, effective fire barriers are needed to contain smoke and fire to a room of origin, so the sprinkler system can do its work. Then, working together, fire suppression systems and effective compartmentation with firestopping can keep a compartment safe for egress, or people that can’t or won’t move due to incapacity, whether physical or mental. Additionally, FCIA believes it makes sense then that effective compartmentation with firestopping should be demanded with sprinkler systems after a tragedy like the Greenwood Health Center nursing home and West Warwick nightclub fire.
Responding to the Changing Environment

Due to the changing environment, with new terrorist threats, both active and passive fire and life safety protection systems should be used. Statistics show that loss of life and property increase when fire spreads beyond the room of origin. Fire resistive construction types help reduce losses by protecting against flame, temperature and smoke travel from fire areas to the next compartment.

An economist might argue that the use of sprinklers and passive fire protection system features with firestop systems in building construction is redundant. Fire history shows that both active and passive (compartments) fire protection features protect buildings and occupants from fire. Sprinkler systems are sometimes out of service for maintenance, non-existent, under construction or rendered useless by fire attack. The First Meridian Bank disaster in Philadelphia and the 1st Interstate Bank fire in Los Angeles were examples of these situations.

Also, with the increased risk of terrorism, (such as with the World Trade Center towers) water supply reliability and has come into question. Sprinkler systems need a minimum water pressure and continuous supply, to be effective. In FCIA’s opinion, with fire and smoke protected compartments using firestopping, the risk of damage and loss of life due to terrorism and resulting disaster to the critical sprinkler system operating elements can be reduced.
The added cost of "fire and smoke rated construction" is often negligible. Most concrete floor assemblies in commercial, institutional and industrial buildings are already fire resistance rated, according to Rik Master of USG Corp. in Chicago. Drywall assemblies in commercial buildings, with one layer of sheetrock on each side of the wall are typically constructed of 5/8-inch thick drywall. Manufacturers typically supply "Type X" for 5/8-inch thick drywall, which becomes the major component of a fire resistance rated assembly anyway when used on both sides of a wall. The only difference between a fire resistance rated and non-rated assembly is that a non-rated assembly doesn’t extend past the ceiling to the floor above, breaking the continuity of the fire assembly.

"The metal studs may be beefed up a bit as well, but [it’s] normally 3-5/8 inches anyway in commercial, institutional and industrial construction," according to Master. Additionally, cables, pipes, walltops and building perimeter joints need to be sealed with tested and listed firestop systems, fire damper and fire door systems. Again, the upcharge for fire rated systems is negligible, as "a door" of some kind still needs to be installed.

Finding the Best of Both Worlds

In FCIA’s opinion, the combination of fire and smoke resistant construction, (passive fire and life safety protection), and a fast response suppression sprinkler system is the best of both worlds. Shouldn’t we demand use of passive fire and life safety items in the in places our loved ones occupy daily? Shouldn’t we include our offices, condos, apartments, hotels, schools, hospitals and nursing homes in this group of people and places to protect as much as we do buildings with valuable high dollar items are stored? The combination of these passive fire and life safety systems and sprinkler systems means more lives saved when using common sense as the reason for better protection ?and it really doesn’t cost that much either, when listening to industry experts such as Master.

The intention here isn’t to purport that either sprinklers or passive fire and smoke protection features are the complete "save all" to the risk of being in a building during fire. Each system has its advantages and disadvantages. The idea is to promote both "active" and "passive" protection. The strength of the combined technology is needed in to protect people and property in buildings.

When quality products and systems are installed by contractors who have proven their firm’s performance with "audit tested" quality programs like FM 4991, Standard for Approval of Firestop Contractors, everybody wins through effective compartmentation and controlling fires to the room of origin. Both passive and active fire and life safety systems with effective firestopping help keep egress and compartmented areas in buildings safe-saving lives and reducing property damage-for our families, wherever they are at any given time.

References:

  • "Briefing on the World Trade Center Attacks," Fire Protection Engineering magazine, Number 13, Winter, 2002.
  • Boston Globe, March 14, 2003
  • "Fire Sprinkler Application Review," PM Engineer magazine, Mark Broman, May 2000
  • "Suspicious Fire at Nursing Home Kills 10 Residents," Miami Herald/Associated Press, Feb. 27, 2003
  • "A statistical benchmark framework for developing stakeholder consensus," Fire Protection Engineering magazine, Number 17, Winter, 2003.