Why All Buildings Need a Balanced Fire Protection Approach

Why All Buildings Need a Balanced Fire Protection Approach

In 2019, the U.S. saw 3,074 fire-related deaths, a steady increase of this type of tragedy since 2012, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. That same year, fires accounted for $14.8 billion in damage, a 75% increase since 2010. While I dare say even one death is too many, these tragic trends are a powerful reminder of the need for a comprehensive and balanced approach to fire protection.

A balanced fire protection system is one that specifies installation of a combination of system types, all of which work together to slow the spread of dangerous flame and smoke in addition to actively working to put out fire. An approach that relies solely on one strategy or the other is setting the stage for a catastrophic single point of failure.

A good place to see how this balanced approach works is in the automotive industry. You wouldn’t rely solely on seatbelts to keep you and your passengers safe, would you? No, most of us would opt instead for a car that had a total safety package, perhaps a balanced combination of passive systems (airbags, seatbelts, and crumple zones) as well as more active solutions (think lane assist, adaptive cruise control and emergency braking). These safety improvements are helping drive vehicle deaths down, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Much like a balanced safety package in your car, a balanced building fire protection approach is one that includes both active and passive protection solutions—like fire-rated glazing and systems—to better protect life and property.

Active Fire Protection in Action

Active fire protection systems, as the name implies, rely upon some sort of trigger to start their operation in the event of smoke and fire. Some of these active solutions must be manually operated, such as fire extinguishers. Others—like sprinkler systems or fire alarms—may activate automatically at the first hint of smoke or fire.

These active systems play an important role in keeping people safe, no doubt, but relying only on active systems opens up the door to risk. Why? It’s because no single solution is 100% effective.

Take sprinklers, for example. One National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) report found that properties with sprinklers saw an 87% reduction in death rate per 1,000 reported fires compared to properties without automatic extinguishing systems. Sprinklers proved effective in controlling fires in 96% of the fires in which they operated—a tremendous success rate to be sure. Yet, the report also notes that sprinklers only operated 92% of the time in fires considered large enough to activate the sprinkler.

Fire alarms have a similar track record. In tracking smoke alarms in home fires from 2014 through 2018, NFPA determined hardwired smoke alarms operated in 94% of fires large enough to trigger a smoke alarm while battery-powered alarms operated 82% of the time.

There’s no negating the tremendous value that fire alarms, sprinklers, and other active systems play in saving lives and reducing damage (every house should have a smoke alarm installed). However, in those few instances where there is a problem with the active system, a balanced approach to fire protection can mean the difference of life or death.

A Single Point of Failure

We saw this risk in action earlier this year. When the severe winter storms hit Texas in February 2021, we watched as low temperatures drove massive power outages across the state, leading to blackouts for more than 4.5 million homes and businesses. The cold temperatures froze water pipes across the region, including at the Hilton Garden Inn in Killeen.

By February 19, the hotel was at full occupancy as locals, displaced from their homes by the power outages, flocked to hotels for heat. Unfortunately, that meant the hotel was full when a fire broke out on the top floor. Guests later reported that no fire alarms sounded to warn them of the fire. The fire department would tell local news crews, “Firefighting efforts were hindered due to automatic sprinkler systems being out of service because of frozen pipes.”

Fortunately, there were only minor injuries as a result of this fire, but it demonstrated how important it is to have layered fire protection safeguards in place. Even for buildings that rely primarily on active protection systems, a layered approach to fire protection systems can reduce the amount of property damage that occurs.

Always-working Passive Protection

Unlike active fire protection, passive fire protection systems, such as fire-rated glazing systems, are always at work. These fire-rated systems won’t put out a fire, but they can slow the spread of harmful smoke and flame long enough to let active systems and our brave first responders do their work. Passive protection systems do this by compartmentalizing a building into smaller sections that slow the spread of dangerous smoke or fire for a set length of time.

Another example would be the smoke dampers installed within HVAC ductwork. These dampers are made of a material that, in the presence of flame, melts to close off the ducts. Smoke curtains can be deployed around elevators or stairwells to block the spread of smoke up to other floors, while draft curtains are often used to break up airflow along the high ceilings of warehouses, helping drive smoke to exhaust vents and activate sprinkler systems.

Developing a Layered Approach

In an ideal situation, you’d specify all of these active and passive fire protection systems as widely as possible. But, in reality, that would be unnecessarily expensive. As building materials have evolved, we’ve developed fire safety solutions that better balance all building priorities. Today, it’s possible to specify fire-rated systems that do double-duty.

Smoke dampers and firestopping solutions have only one, albeit critical, function. Fire-rated glazing systems, on the other hand, offer benefits well beyond fire performance. Fire-rated windows and curtainwalls provide passive fire protection when needed while allowing for daylighting and connection to the outdoors at all times. In some cases, thanks to increasing levels of multifunctionality, these systems can stop the passage of hot gas, smoke and even heat transmission while also providing protection from blasts, bullets and attacks.

If you’re specifying a window, door or hallway partition anyway, why wouldn’t you ask it to “do more?” Not only can these systems help meet fire protection standards, but they can do so while balancing your aesthetic, space, and other expectations. That sounds like a pretty worthwhile balance to me.

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