Fire Protection: What Works and What Doesn’t
I find it ironic when words can have such a double meaning. “Passive” is defined as not reacting visibly to something, not participating readily or actively. “Passivity” is further defined as allowing people to do things without complaining or pushing back. For us in the wall and ceiling industry, we use the word passive to describe a methodology used in fire protection. While the two seem to be unrelated, they are closely related and it should make contractors mad and scare the public.
Passive Fire Protection
Passive fire protection is built on the principles of suppression and containment of a fire from the source. Despite the name, passive fire protection is at work all day, every day. Passive fire protection refers to protecting structural elements with coatings, membranes or non-combustible materials to prevent structural collapse. In reality, the term passive is maybe the wrong choice of words. Active fire protection sounds so much better. This is the methodology of fire protection that employs sprinklers and alarms. I am not opposed in the slightest to active fire protection, I am opposed to what we call trade-offs. A trade-off is the code allowance to eliminate some passive fire protection in favor of active fire protection. In other words, designers may opt to eliminate spray applied fireproofing if they install a certain type or more sprinklers.
When I worked at an architectural office I was assigned a multi-family project for code review, and the team was shocked when I reported we could expand the footprint and height of the building by simply adding sprinklers. This was not really shocking, but when I pointed out that we could also eliminate some fireproofing, that was a shock. One principal of the firm was in disbelief until I directed him to the local code with the trade-off provision. He made the proclamation, “Our firm will not do that—we do not build fire traps.” His reaction may be strong but he has a point. In construction, nothing should take precedence over life safety issues. Nothing.
The passive nature of our industry has led other interests to use political clout, twist facts, and alter the code to benefit themselves. Being passive is great for a methodology in fire suppression, but not for protecting your industry or safety of the public.
History Has Lots of Proof
In 1980, fire ripped through the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Nearly 700 people were injured and 84 died as the fire and smoke swept through rooms void of modern head-of-wall protection we now refer to as firestopping. Most guests found out about the fire by seeing smoke enter their room or via others who told them. The hotel’s alarm system was destroyed before it could activate.
In 1988, a fire broke out on the 9th floor of the First Interstate Bank building in Los Angeles. The shrill noise coming from the smoke detector was annoying, so an employee turn it off. The fire leapfrogged to upper floors as the gap between the floor slab and curtain wall was unprotected.
Both of these events led to significant changes in codes and improved life safety. The 2004 fire in downtown Chicago is a good example. Fire broke out on the 29th floor of the historical LaSalle building that had been renovated to meet new passive fire protection plans directly learned from the MGM and First Interstate buildings. The result was a much more contained fire, protecting life and property.
The active systems are needed and certainly help, but to disregard the value and benefit of a proven passive fire protection methodology, such as spray applied fireproofing, firestopping and shaft walls, is absurd. The concern is that the pendulum seems to have swung too far in favor of the more glamorous and sexy active fire suppression systems. We should not put complete trust in the active fire protection methodology that is subject to mechanical failures or human error. We need both systems; nothing trumps life safety. The cost to install passive fire protection is pennies on the dollar during construction and it is a one-time cost. We should not minimize the passive protection against fire with regard to structural protection, compartmentalization, opening protection and protected exit corridors. These methods have taken time to develop and refine; people have lost their lives to get us here. Let’s not go backwards. These systems work. Maybe it is partly our own fault, but maybe we have just all been too passive about this issue.