firestopping, a life safety remedy—misunderstood and misapplied: what is the solution?

Bill Plichta

June 1, 2001

History has shown that life safety disasters can result when building codes are misunderstood, not followed or loosely enforced. This is not to say that individuals and organizations charged with such oversight don’t care. The truth is they do care and they do want to do things right especially when the issue is life safety.

An example from the distant past comes from ancient Rome where, in fact, they had rudimentary building codes. Those codes called for setbacks. Unfortunately, construction in Rome was running rampant and code officials were simply unable to keep pace. Well, we all know the saying that "Rome was not built in a day", but regrettably, it was almost burned to the ground in that amount of time. The tragedy was caused, not because no one cared, but because those responsible were not provided the time necessary to ensure the setback code was followed.

In our own time, the tragic loss of life and property could have been reduced significantly by installation of proper firestop systems in at least two infamous instances:

  • The MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas where 85 deaths occurred in 1980 – sixty-eight people died from smoke inhalation on the 23rd floor of the hotel, even thought the fire started on the first floor.
  • The First Interstate Bank Building fire in Los Angeles in 1998 where property losses exceeded $50,000,000.

As a result of such disasters, national building codes now specify that firestop systems be tested in accordance with ASTM E-814 and that the testing be witnessed by third party certification agencies. Today more than fifty percent of modern building codes refer in some way or another to fire protection – detection, suppression, ventilation and evacuation. Firestopping is the newest element of fire protection in building codes and as such is the most often misunderstood.

Firestop systems re-gain the fire rating of fire separations that have been compromised by penetrations for services such as piping and electrical conduit. Firestopping is also required in joint systems such as floor-to-wall and wall-to-wall joints. When properly installed in accordance with listed third party system specifications, firestopping prevents the spread of fire for a prescribed period of time. Underwriters Laboratories (UL), Omega Point Laboratories, Warnock Hersey and Factory Mutual are the principal firestop listing agencies.

A diagram typical of a third party-listed fire stop system (in this case UL) for re-gaining the fire rating of a concrete wall or floor that has been penetrated by a metal pipe is shown in the accompanying diagram.

The System No. C-AJ-1281 is an alpha- alpha – numeric code that tells the specifier, installer and inspector the construction type, the kind of penetrating item and identifies the manufacturer that obtained the listing.

The "F" Rating is the time in hours that the firestop system will prevent the passage of flame, as determined by ASTM E 814.

The "T" Rating is the time in hours required for the temperature on the unexposed surface of the fire-rated assembly to rise 325 degrees F above ambient temperature. This value is also determined by ASTM E 814.

The numbers in the drawing refer to the various components of the assembly, where:

  • 1 & 2 are the fire rated concrete wall and floor,
  • 3 is the penetrating item, which in this case is a metal pipe, and
  • 4 denotes the elements of the firestop system where 4A is mineral wool and 4B is the firestop sealant.

Firestop sealants are specially formulated caulk or spray products that retard the penetration of smoke and fire.

System No. C-AJ-1281

  F Rating – 3 Hr

   T Rating – ¼ Hr

The third party listings certify that the manufacturer of the firestop sealant had its product tested in a system that passed the ASTM E 814 fire test for the specific construction shown in the listing. Third party agencies witness the testing as part of the listing process.

In order for manufacturers of firestop systems to be able to sell product for the majority of construction configurations encountered on the job site, they may be required to secure 100 or more individual listings. For those cases where no listing can be found that matches a particular configuration, most manufacturers can provide what is known as an Engineering Judgement. An Engineering Judgement resembles a third party listing, but clearly states that it is a judgement made by the manufacturer’s engineering staff. The manufacturer develops the firestop Engineering Judgement based on fire tests run on constructions similar to the one in question. It is necessary for the installer of the firestop system for which the Engineering Judgement was obtained, to have it approved by the local inspector prior to installation

Misunderstanding and misapplication are not difficult to fathom when one considers that much of firestop installation is done almost as an afterthought, typically by a craft person not fully conversant with the process. One cannot expect an electrician, plumber or drywall installer to read and install a listed system without proper training.

Consider too, that there are several manufacturers each with a multiplicity of listings for various sealants, intumescent pillows, plastic pipe collars, putty pads and board products that are used alone or in combination with a variety of products.

The complexity of choosing a system and inspecting it requires up-front training and continuing education. Until quite recently, manufacturers of firestop products have taken it upon themselves to train those involved in an industry where various crafts do firestopping installation. In spite of their efforts to provide the necessary training, misapplication of firestopping installations occurs with some frequency. Inspectors are also routinely trained by manufacturers but reaching all of them and keeping them current on new systems and products is, at best, a difficult task. One company manufacturing firestop products has developed a self paced CD-Rom for training installers, but even this training tool cannot possibly reach all of the firestop systems installers.

The Role of the FCIA and the IFC

Enter the Firestop Contractors International Association (FCIA). Formed about three years ago, its mission is articulated as follows:

The mission of the FCIA is for member organizations to be recognized throughout the construction industry as preferred, quality, contractors of life safety firestop systems. FCIA member contractors are committed to providing consistent, high quality firestop installations.

Through active participation in the FCIA and other related association conferences, members contribute to the advancement of the firestop industry and maintain exceptional knowledge of this specialized service. Through this professional commitment member contractors bring considerable value to their customers of this life safety service.

The International Firestop Council (IFC) is a not-for-profit association of manufacturers, distributors and installers of fire protective materials and systems. IFC’s mission is to promote the technology of fire containment in modern building construction through research, education and development of safety standards and code provisions.

Firestop Contractor Approval

Much has been accomplished in what amounts to a remarkably short time span. The most significant milestone is the certification of firestop contractors by Factory Mutual (FM) Research. This represents FM’s first approval process for contractors after many years of approvals of products and services. The new program is known as Firestop Contractor Approval Standard 4991. It is the direct result of the efforts of FCIA’s working with FM.

The new program addresses concerns and quality issues expressed at virtually every level of the construction industry, from architects to building owners, by improving the installation performance and reliability of firestopping systems. Firestop contractors will be required to score at least 80 percent on each of two written exams, pass job-site and office quality control exams and create a quality assurance manual. There is also a requirement to earn at least six continuing education credits every three years. Also of significance is development and publication of the association’s Manual of Practice.

The FCIA’s committee structure has evolved, responding to the industry’s changing needs. The FCIA committees include the accreditation committee, the technical/code committee, the communications committee, the marketing committee, and the education committee.

From a manufacturer’s standpoint, FCIA has addressed the issues seen as most vexing at the installer level in an appropriate and expeditious manner.

Improvements Ahead

Since our entry into the business more than three years ago, we have witnessed significant maturation within the industry. That is not to say that the industry is approaching mature status. Far from it. New product development is robust, as experience in the field has stimulated creation of solutions to specific installation problems addressing them in new and creative ways. For the most part, the new products add value by reducing labor while improving performance. These new products bring with them their own need for additional listings and specialized training.

For my part, I see groups like the FCIA and IFC as a potential resource for every facet of the construction industry, functioning well beyond its stated purpose. Perhaps a more active and formal dialogue among manufacturers and FCIA contractors could streamline the new product development process, generating a more marketplace-driven approach. Such an approach could also serve to guide manufacturers in their quest for meaningful new, third party listings. It could, as well, facilitate development of new, more effective programs of contractor training. It is also quite possible that new, more effective programs of sales training and incentives can result. I can also envision such a dialogue leading to more highly targeted and effective marketing and sales promotion programs.

It is my hope that I may have stimulated some further thought relative to the role of associations and resources. We are very grateful to FCIA for its efforts and significant accomplishments, which benefit all of us. Thanks also to Executive Director Bill McHugh and President Blase Reardon for advice and background information used in writing this article.