Fire Protection Systems: A Life Safety Necessity


The National Fire Protection Association reported that in 2015 structure fires accounted for only 37 percent of all U.S. fires but 82 percent of civilian deaths and 72 percent of direct property damage. In whole numbers, that’s 2,755 deaths and $97 billion in property damage.

How are designers and builders keeping their projects from becoming another statistic?

If sprinkler systems and fire walls come to mind, you’re on the right track. These are examples of active and passive fire protection systems. Active fire protection (AFP) systems are generally those that require some type of action to set them off such as clean agent fire suppression systems, exhaust fans or automatic sprinklers — all of which require heat, smoke or an alarm to trigger them.

Mark Reinebach, core/solutions sales manager for SimplexGrinnell, said the decision of which system to use depends on its location and how the room will be used. For instance, dry sprinklers are generally used in unconditioned areas such as the attics of nursing homes and in other scenarios where there is no temperature control.

“You can’t have water just sitting in pipes in these locations because they can potentially freeze,” said Reinebach, “and then when you need them, they won’t work. But with dry air sprinklers, there is air in the pipes. If the sprinkler head detects heat, a compressor bleeds the air off and then allows water to fill the pipes.”

What if it is in an area where water damage may be highly detrimental to business? Reinebach said this is where clean agent suppression systems come into play.

“If you’re a business that relies heavily on your computer system, like a bank, water from sprinklers can really set you back,” he said. “Clean agent systems will extinguish a fire without the water. You may have to come in and replace a circuit board in a computer, but you’re back up and running quickly.”

Exhaust fans are another AFP system that must be specifically placed. Malcolm Sweet, general manager at St. Louis-based Integrated Facility Services, said buildings over three stories high and with large assembly areas or atriums are required to have them.

“These fans are triggered by an alarm,” Sweet said. “They clear the smoke out of the area, limiting people’s exposure so they can get out of the building safely. Fire and smoke dampers in ducts also help. These are placed in areas such as stairwells and hallways. They’re spring loaded. When triggered, they block off any smoke, keeping the exits clear.”

Fire and smoke dampers are a form of passive fire protection systems or PFP. PFP systems help contain the spread of fire and smoke, thus limiting the amount of damage to a building and providing its occupants with ample time to get out. Along with fire and smoke dampers, PFP systems include fire doors, firewalls and floors.

Jay McGuire, vice president for Fire Stop Technologies, Inc., said these fire barriers compartmentalize areas where there may be a greater potential for fire — such as electrical or boiler rooms — and can contain a fire in that area for two or more hours depending upon the walls’ fire rating. That is, he added, if the firestopping in that area was done properly.

“The problem we keep seeing are with penetrations made in firewalls for pipes, ductwork or cables that aren’t properly filled,” said McGuire. “This compromises the rating of the firewalls which means that if a fire starts, both fire and smoke will pour through the holes and increase the potential for harm to the structure and its occupants. But if it’s done right to begin with and is maintained properly afterward, firestopping can save lives and assets including the building itself.”

According to McGuire, the people most often doing the firestopping have no real knowledge of how to install it or even what to use.

“It’s not unusual to find someone who has been told to just squirt some red caulk around a hole because the tube said the material is rated for two hours. That’s unacceptable,” McGuire said. “A lot of money is spent designing and building a building. Firestopping is normally the smallest scope of work on the entire project, and yet this is where they cut corners. Why? I’d say most of it is simply ignorance, but a lot is done just to pass inspection. People need to understand that firestopping is an important part of the building project and of life safety.”

Building specifications, according to McGuire, should indicate that a UL-qualified firestop contractor should be hired to do the work; UL is an American safety consulting and certification company. The firestop contractor should also require that everything is labeled and documented with regard to the firestopping, indicating such things as the installer’s name, product used, the scope of the work, the date it was installed and where it was installed in the building. But even when including this in the installation specifications, it is often disregarded, he said.

“Contractors either let the trades handle the firestopping or their own guys, and neither are qualified,” McGuire said. “We have solutions that are very cost effective and all of our installations are well-documented. They even include photos of our work.”

Jim Howard, firestop specialist at Negwer Materials Inc., said stricter codes are making adherence more important than ever. Howard urges hiring either a professional firestop contractor or someone specifically trained by a firestop manufacturer.

“I’d say 60 percent of people who do firestopping don’t really understand the principles behind it and how it works,” Howard said. “I’ve been teaching this for 18 years and the codes have changed drastically since I started. Every year they become even stricter. It pays to get someone who knows what he’s doing, not only to pass inspection but to potentially save lives.”

Howard warned that the 2012 International Building Code requirements state all firestopping must now be inspected and approved by a third-party inspector hired by the building’s general contractor or owner. These inspectors must be licensed and trained on how to inspect for firestop by the Firestop Contractors International Association, he said. Throughout the building’s construction, these inspectors periodically examine each penetration and joint in a fire barrier to ensure that the appropriate systems are used and installed correctly.

“I’ve walked on many jobs where the specs called for a special firestop contractor and it was completely ignored,” Howard said. “I’ve also seen these same projects shut down after an inspector came out. In one particular case, a project was shut down for 30 days while each penetration was documented and labeled. Have you any idea how much that costs? So, you need to make sure you know what you’re doing or that you’ve hired a licensed firestop professional.”

With both AFP and PFP systems installed properly and working together, Reinebach said a fire doesn’t have to result in either property damage or lives lost.

“Whether it’s an active or passive system, just make certain you’re dealing with a licensed, certified contractor,” he stressed. “If any piece of the puzzle isn’t complete, the system may not function as it should. And both active and passive systems are vitally important systems of checks and balances.”

A good example of the checks and balances methodology, according to Reinebach, is an apartment complex. All units may have smoke detectors, but if a neighbor takes his down for some reason and then falls asleep on the couch with a lit cigarette, that two-hour firewall between his and his neighbor’s two units may save his neighbor’s life and limit any damage. But if the contractor has cut corners, it could be disastrous. Reinebach said doing everything possible to prevent such a potentiality is critical.

“We try very hard to work with contractors who may have budget issues,” he said. “Still, there are some (contractors) we simply will not do business with and for a very good reason. I don’t take shortcuts and here’s why. One day one of my children may spend the night in a hotel, or my grandmother may stay in a nursing home or any of my friends may be in a situation where there’s a fire in a building with a system I designed and installed. But every night I can go home, put my head on the pillow and sleep soundly knowing I haven’t done anything to jeopardize someone else’s life.”

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