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London fire shines spotlight on fire prevention, protection and education
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London fire shines spotlight on fire prevention, protection and education

It has been a month since news of the tragic Grenfell Tower Fire in London shook the entire world.  While the investigation is still underway, many experts have been weighing in on how a tragedy of this magnitude could have happened, and how it can be prevented – especially since our knowledge of building materials and fire safety in general has advanced in leaps and bounds compared to 50 or 60 years ago.

As shocking as the Grenfell Tower fire was, it is not an isolated incident. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) President James Pauley cites in his post Connecting the dots in today’s fire problem, that there has been 5 other tragic fire incidents that happened in the US and abroad in less than one year. Taken together, these collective fire tragedies suggest that “either intentionally or accidentally, the fire prevention and protection system has been broken.” He goes on to mention six scenarios that have contributed to this breakdown:

•    the use of outdated codes and standards
•    acceptance of reduced safety requirements to save money
•    ignoring referenced standards within a code
•    lack of education around the application of the codes and standards
•    reduced enforcement
•    a public unaware of the dangers of fire

In the last 10 years, we have seen a trend in the codes where having active fire protection systems have either relaxed or eliminated otherwise required passive or built-in fire resistive building materials in order to save money. However, I believe that these sprinkler trade-offs have left many building occupants and firefighters vulnerable in the event of a fire.

Sprinklers or active fire protection systems are designed to suppress fire, and requires an outside trigger in order to operate. Passive or built-in fire resistive building materials contain fire, smoke and heat to the point of origin without the need for any outside triggers. One is not more important than the other – both active and passive fire protection systems are equally important in containing and suppressing the fire. This approach, known as balanced fire protection or safety layering, is more important than ever when sprinklers fail.  Having passive or built-in fire resistive building materials that perform 24/7 without any triggers give building occupants the best chance to exit the building safely, and minimizes the danger to firefighters responding to the scene. As Fire Safe North America (FSNA) writes in their white paper:

“The concern is not so much that a properly maintained automatic sprinkler system will fail, but that a natural disaster, human error or lack of maintenance could disable the system to the point where additional layers of protection may be the only measures preventing or delaying a building or an entire block from being destroyed by fire. When those safety layers do not exist, the building will not be able to withstand as big of a fire and will fail sooner, putting occupants and especially firefighters at great risk.”

When it comes to fire rated glazing, previous versions of the code (particularly the 2003 and 2006 versions of the IBC), have allowed fire protective glazing like ceramics to exceed 100 sq. inches in 60-90 minute door vision panels in exit enclosures and exit passageways if the building is fully sprinklered. Knowing the enormous danger of having uncontrolled radiant heat passing through ceramics to building occupants who rely on these exits for safe egress, the sprinkler exception was later on removed in the 2012 and 2015 IBC.

Based on the latest version of the ICC state adoptions chart, currently about 80% of United States is on the 2012 or 2015 IBC where sprinkler exemptions do not apply to the 100 sq. inch size limitation on fire protective glazing used in door vision panels in 60-90 minute doors in exit enclosures and passageways. The only way to exceed the 100 sq. inch size limitation and still meet code requirements is by using fire resistive glazing that meets ASTM E-119. You can read more about the code requirements for 60-90 minute doors in our product alert to ensure that any of your current or upcoming projects are in compliance.

For the handful of states that are still in the 2006 and 2009 IBC, designers can start protecting building occupants now by applying what the ICC committee members already knew when the exception to expand fire protective glazing in the door vision area was removed in the 2012 IBC. Exit enclosures and passageways are critical areas that are necessary for the safe egress of building occupants, or as a haven where they can safely await rescue if egress is difficult or impossible. Besides, it is only a matter of time before these states adopt a version of the 2012 or 2015 IBC, where the sprinkler exception does not exist for glazing used in the door vision panel.

Trade-offs have also paved the way for special-purpose sprinklers used with fixed glazed assemblies (either non-rated or laminated ceramic) as an alternative product (AHJ approval required) for 1-2 hour fire resistive wall assemblies. Proponents of this alternative wall assembly cite the high cost of fire resistive glazing assemblies as the main reason to consider this product. However, as we have discussed in a previous blog, there are several hidden costs and risks associated with this alternate wall assembly. It actually ends up being more expensive and less safe than readily available 1-2 hour fire resistive glazed walls that do not need prior AHJ approval.

This alternative assembly uses a special wet-pipe sprinkler system that is different from the sprinklers used throughout the building, and the automatic water supply must have the capability of supplying 1 or 2 hours of water, depending on the rating of the wall. Depending on the circumstances, this can require larger pumps, increased water pressure and additional water that dramatically increases the initial cost of installing the system and the perpetual maintenance costs required to make sure that the sprinkler system works. In addition, since this alternate wall system relies on sprinklers working 100% of the time, occupant safety is being risked because as the NFPA and other experts know, there is no such thing as 100% sprinkler reliability.

As members of the building and design industry – whether you are an architect, contractor, installer, developer or manufacturer – it is important to remember that the buildings we create are meant to be occupied by people. We all play a role in ensuring their comfort and protection, and it starts with not treating fire safety as a trade-off.

Mr. Pauley ends his post with a positive call-to-action: “At NFPA, we are focused on looking at the entire system and working with everyone involved to fill the gaps. We may not be able to prevent every tragedy from occurring, but by recommitting to and promoting a full system of fire prevention, protection and education, we can help save lives and reduce loss.” As an NFPA member and USA-based fire rated glazing systems manufacturer, we will continue to do our part in creating innovative and accessible products that enhance safety, as well as educate designers, installers and owners on the safe and code-approved applications of our product.