Compartmentation Industry Applauds One Building’s Fire Protection System

Aedan Gleeson

Bill McHugh

Bill McHugh has been the Executive Director of the Firestop Contractors International Association (FCIA), National Fireproofing Contractors Association (NFCA), and Chicago Roofing Contractors Association (CRCA). He has been in the construction industry for 40+ years specializing in fire-resistance, roofing, and waterproofing. He participates in the code development process at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), International Code Council (ICC), State of Illinois, and City of Chicago. He has served on the ICC’s Fire Safety Code Development Committee, serves on the Fire Protection Features Committee at NFPA, and is a past member of the International Accreditation Services (IAS) Board of Directors. At the American Society for Healthcare Engineering (ASHE), he serves as organizer and moderator for the ASHE/TJC/FCIA/UL Barrier Management Symposiums. He is also a past Institute Director, Chapter, and Region President at the Construction Specifications Institute. McHugh produces Life Safety Digest, the Magazine of Effective Compartmentation, is principal author of the FCIA Firestop Manual of Practice, and speaks at conferences, webinars, and symposiums. He can be reached at

June 1, 2006

After watching scenes of the fire at Chicago’s 135 S. LaSalle St. (LaSalle Bank building) in December 2004, we were pleased to hear that the Chicago Fire Department operated flawlessly to rescue people from the burning building while fighting the fire and dousing the intense flames. The structure, engineered to Chicago’s high-rise building codes, past and present, withstood fire exposure for more than five hours. Other major high-rise fires have involved multiple floors. Here, the fire was contained to the twenty-ninth floor for a very long period of time, saving both life and property.

Since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the city has been fire sensitive. It was one of the first cities to build homes and structures with fire-resistant materials to prevent fire spread from building to building. Chicago provided leadership in building codes requiring Effective Compartmentation and structural steel fireproofing protection in buildings. Effective Compartmentation uses hourly fire resistance-rated floors, walls, fire doors, fire dampers, and firestopping to protect people from fire spreading to floors above or rooms next door. In addition, smoke protection systems are being retrofitted into fire walls and floors to prevent the spread of smoke during fires, and some building owners are installing automatic sprinkler systems to further protect structures in Chicago.

Several things worked in this fire, from LaSalle Bank’s detection system (which sensed the fire and activated alarms) to communications systems operated by educated building management, firefighting personnel who instructed people on what to do, 911 and building occupant communication links with firefighters, occupants trained through fire drills, stairwell doors that opened once the building systems sensed fire, and Effective Compartmentation fire resistance-rated floors that stopped fire from spreading fast vertically for several hours.

One element that worked in this incident was the structure itself. The intensity of the fire exposure may have caused other buildings to collapse and fire to spread vertically, including more than just the floor of origin in the blaze. The LaSalle Bank building’s fire safety features, rooted in Chicago’s concept of Effective Compartmentation and structural fire protection, paid dividends. The exterior wall system, made of non-combustible elements, and a strong structural column and floor system helped the building withstand a fire for more than five hours without progressive collapse.

The question has been raised by many: Could 135 S. LaSalle St. have been equipped to provide better fire protection? Absolutely. Implementing the City of Chicago’s Life Safety Evaluation, which requires attention to Effective Compartmentation—firestopping, fire doors and frames, fire and smoke dampers in fire resistance-rated construction, Effective Compartmentation features, and sprinkler systems—can make a building safer for those who work and visit there each day.

The LaSalle Bank building management should be congratulated for educating building operations personnel and occupants through fire drills that helped people understand the exit procedure during a fire event. Additionally, for excellent performance under fire, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and his “City That Works” —including Cortez Trotter, Fire Department Commissioner, and Alderman Bernard Stone, chair of the City Council’s Committee on Buildings—should be commended for life-saving legislation and codes that made this structure perform well past most building code requirements in the United States, which only require two or three hours of protection under fire attack.

Another Chicago high-rise fire occurred at the Cook County Administration Building in October 2003. As a result of efforts by Chicago’s Committee on Buildings—which listened to testimony from the Effective Compartmentation industry, such as the Firestop Contractors International Association (FCIA) as well as the sprinkler industries—the Life Safety Evaluation was created. In the press, the evaluation was nicknamed the “sprinkler ordinance” because it created a mandate to sprinkler high-rise office buildings slated for completion between 2012 and 2017.

What was not reported was that there is an option on the Life Safety Evaluation that allows an exception for older buildings. Many historic and multi-family high-rise structures were constructed using Effective Compartmentation as the main fire protection feature in the buildings. Since the major investment was already in place with compartmentation, FCIA, the Chicago Association of Realtors, and others recommended that these types of buildings be allowed to reinvest in the existing compartmentation. Maintenance of the compartmentation was allowed as a substitute to the sprinkler mandate in these occupancies, allowing multi-family homeowners the time to budget for sprinklers and add them as can be afforded by the owners.

FCIA members believe in Effective Compartmentation as a major measure to protect life safety in buildings. If properly designed, installed, inspected, and maintained, Effective Compartmentation components provide reliable protection.

Top questions to ask when purchasing firestop systems that have insulation as a component
  1. What Tested and Listed Systems is the insulation tested in?
  2. Is the insulation part of a tested and listed system?
  3. Is the insulation specified by name in that tested and listed system?
  4. Show me that System!
  5. For more information about products, materials, systems and selection, testing, visit and order the FCIA firestop industry Manual of Practice.

Firestopping is a matter of matching the tested and listed system with conditions as they exist in the field exactly. There are no ‘construction tolerances’, ‘make it fit’ or other variations allowed, unless specified in the tested and listed system. Once a contractor understands that philosophy, makes it part of the corporate culture, from office to field, then successful firestopping projects can take place.