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As seen in Doors & Hardware, January 2014

Fire and Life Safety Resolutions

By Jeff Razwick

State legislatures and municipalities vote building codes into law, and establish guidelines for fire-rated construction. Working within these parameters to arrive at code-compliant designs is not as straightforward as following a set of predetermined standards.

Fire and life safety codes and best practices differ depending on the building height, the occupancy group, the location in the building where a given fire-rated material is to be used, and numerous other factors. To further complicate the matter, codes are regularly updated, but rarely adopted on a uniform schedule across jurisdictions. This leaves building industry professionals with room for significant variance as they work to balance code, aesthetic and functional goals.

While there is no simple fire and life safety formula, resolving to implement the following strategies can help guide a well-balanced fire and life safety plan. These considerations are intended to provide building industry professionals with a good working knowledge of fire and life safety fundamentals.

Building compartmentation provides critical backup protection for students

Building compartmentation provides critical backup protection for students

Redundancy in fire protection helps ensure the safety of patients and property

Redundancy in fire protection helps ensure the safety of patients and property

Use a Total System Approach

A balanced fire protection strategy includes both active and passive building elements. Active systems provide protection only after they are triggered. Fire alarms, automatic sprinkler systems and fire extinguishers fall within this classification.

Passive systems require no activation to perform as intended. They provide protection by either containing a fire to its area of origin, or slowing its spread to other spaces. Passive components such as fire-rated glazing, doors, and walls must be tested by independent third parties to determine if they meet fire-rating criteria and can adequately provide compartmentation.

Incorporating both active and passive components is critical, as they work together to promote life and property safety. For example, an automatic sprinkler system might activate and slow a fire’s growth, but fail to provide sufficient water to fully extinguish it. If fire-rated materials are incorporated in the building construction, they can help halt the fire’s progress and block its spread to other parts of the building.

Today, many industry professionals and codes recognize the importance of redundancy in fire protection. As discussed in the following section, it is essential to provide a complete and well-rounded fire and life safety protection plan. Sprinklers are a key part of that, as well as passive fire-resistive materials.

Account For Automatic Sprinkler Failure

There is no question automatic sprinkler systems play a significant role in fire and life safety protection. A 2010 report published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) states automatic sprinkler systems were effective in 91 percent of all reported structure fires large enough to cause activation. When activated, they were effective 96 percent of the time. These figures combine for an overall performance reliability of 87 percent.

In light of these impressive performance statistics, some building codes and industry professionals claim sprinklers alone can provide adequate fire and life safety protection. A case in point is the International Building Code (IBC) tradeoff that allows some educational occupancies to have exit corridors with no fire rating when sprinklers are in place.

The thinking behind the E-occupancy tradeoff is shifting money from building compartmentation to sprinklers is an effective and affordable way to protect students and teachers against fire. But sprinklers are not infallible. According to the statistics cited above, automatic sprinkler systems fail in about one out of 10 fires. With approximately 6,300 annual structural fires in educational properties, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, this could mean more than 600 school fires each year in which sprinklers do not operate as intended. The ramifications for schools without backup protection could be dire—a fire could develop and spread before students and teachers have time to exit the building.

The E-occupancy code tradeoff is just one example of the risks presented by an overreliance on automatic sprinkler systems. As a cautionary measure, project teams can elect to use fire-rated materials regardless of whether the code also requires building compartmentation.

Know what type of defense the application requires

Codes mandate whether a given location requires a "fire protective" or "fire resistive" product. Fire protective materials defend against the spread of flames and smoke for their designated fire rating. By comparison, fire resistive materials provide an extra layer of defense by also protecting against the transfer of radiant and conductive heat. This is a critical distinction to understand when working with materials that provide different types of fire safety, as is the case with fire-rated glass.

Many types of fire-rated glass can protect against flames and smoke, but only glass tested to ASTM E-119, Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Building Construction and Materials, and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) 263, Fire Resistance Ratings, can defend against heat transfer. Such glass is suitable where building codes require an assembly designated "fire resistant" to enclose a space.

To ensure fire-rated materials provide the appropriate type of protection, confirm with the manufacturer or supplier and check the product label. For example, the IBC ensures the product label on fire-rated glass shows at-a-glance where it is suitable for use, along with whether it meets temperature rise criteria.

Check the Required Fire Rating

It is essential to check the required fire rating since code standards vary depending on where an assembly is to be located within a building. The IBC uses factors such as construction type, occupancy and fire separation to determine the required fire ratings. Examples of locations that may require fire-rated materials include: the building envelope, exit corridors, exit enclosures and openings in walls designated as a fire barrier.

Since building codes only spell out the required fire rating and type of protection for a given location, not the material, professionals have great freedom to seek out products that also satisfy design and performance goals (see sidebar, "Fire-rated glazing: More than a code-driven solution"). To find products or systems that meet code requirements, refer to manufacturer or supplier specifications and online specification services. Manufacturers get their products rated and approved by credible testing laboratories, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL), after undergoing rigorous testing.

Take Responsibility

When it comes to fire and life safety, it is important to take responsibility and gather all the details to avoid making costly or dangerous mistakes. After examining the building application and narrowing the materials, review codes and the manufacturers' or supplier's product literature in detail. Look for any special requirements, limitations or exclusions. Where doubts remain, contact the supplier, manufacturer or code official; many have educational resources and tools available to help guide the design and specification process.

If key decision makers push back on cost, take the time to share your knowledge and educate them on the importance of a comprehensive fire and life safety strategy, and the performance benefits of the materials they are purchasing. Many buildings are designed to last 30 years or more, providing a lengthy time to amortize the costs of critical life safety products.

More importantly, people occupy buildings under the assumption they are safe. They do not consult commercial building codes or verify proper material use before entering a shopping center or sending their kids to school. They rely on building, design and construction experts to conduct due diligence and create safe, code-compliant living and working spaces. Providing a well-balanced fire and life safety plan is a critical component of this process. Take the time to make the right decisions and help ensure the safety of the people who use our country’s buildings.


Jeff Razwick is the president of Technical Glass Products (TGP), a supplier of fire-rated glass and framing systems, and specialty architectural glazing. He writes frequently about the design and specification of glazing for institutional and commercial buildings, and is a past chair of the Glass Association of North America's (GANA) Fire-Rated Glazing Council (FRGC). www.fireglass.com, (800) 426-0279

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