Don’t be laid back when it comes to passive protection

It can be all too easy to lose sight of critical fire safety features, either because they’re in plain sight and taken for granted, or because they are hidden away in a building’s fabric – but passive fire protection is far too important to let it slip into the back of the mind

When it comes to fighting fires, the best solution is to ensure they never get started in the first place. Sadly real life doesn’t work like that; with the best will in the world, sooner or later, somewhere or another – fire happens.

That’s where fire protection measures come into play. Active fire suppression systems – fire extinguishers, sprinklers and so forth – no doubt arise foremost in our minds when it comes to considering such things. After mental images of fire engines and fire fighters in action around a blaze, that is.

However, there’s another layer of fire protection, one that is built in – out of sight, out of mind – that is perhaps all the more critical. That’s because they limit or at least delay the spread of any fire, allowing the occupants the time to reach safety and let those active fire countermeasures come into play.

Passive fire protection, as it is known, comes in a number of guises, but essentially they serve a similar purpose – to contain the fire and otherwise help maintain a building’s structural integrity for as long as possible. This principle applies regardless of building type, or methods and materials of construction used; concrete or structural insulated panel, steel or timber frame, residential or commercial. Fire does not discriminate, and the longer it can be held at bay, the better for buildings and occupants alike.

“Passive fire protection is a vital component of any fire safety strategy. It is built into the structure of a building to safeguard people’s lives and limit the financial impact of damage to buildings and their contents,” says the Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP).”[It] is built into the structure to provide stability and into walls and floors to separate the building into areas of manageable risk – compartments.

“These areas are designed to restrict the growth and spread of fire, allowing occupants to escape and offering protection to firefighters. Such protection is either provided by the materials from which the building is constructed, or added to the building to enhance its fire resistance.”

Fire doors are probably the passive fire protection system lay folk are most familiar with; or maybe not. These being doors, there’s a tendency to take them somewhat for granted. And it’s not just the everyday users or residents of a building that can lose sight of their essential purpose– building professionals are not necessarily immune to such slips of awareness, either.

“A fire door is a vital safety device engineered to save lives and property. Its correct specification, fitting and maintenance are the responsibility of each and every person involved in the process from specification to maintenance,” according to the BWF-CERTIFIRE certification scheme, which is operated by the British Woodworking Federation (BWF).
“If you take short cuts or think you can save money by saving on specification, it’s time to think again. It’s only when a fire breaks out that the consequences of your actions are known.”

When David Oldfield, head of joinery at Arnold Laver, was voted into the chairmanship of the BWF-CERTIFIRE scheme in November last year, he used the occasion to flag up the critical issue of complacency in the industry. Fire doors may not be as fire secure as we would hope, because in too many cases, they’ve become taken for granted as just, well, doors.

Oldfield cited research by the Fire Door Inspection Scheme (FDIS) which had found that 61% of fire doors inspected had problems with fire or smoke seals. Despite major breakthroughs in fire safety in recent years, the overall improvement and simplification of third-party certification of fire doors, and the work of the FDIS, he said he remained worried about a “culture of complacency” among those responsible for specifying, installing and maintaining passive fire protection measures, such as fire doors.

“The scale of the problem is huge and appears to affect every sector and every type of building we use, work and live in. The state of the nation’s fire doors is a borderline national crisis,” said Oldfield. “The fire door industry and its close partners across construction and fire safety services need to continue to work together to ensure critical messages about fire door safety reach our customers, but also echo in the corridors of power – change needs to be driven from the top.”

The message is one Oldfield is keen to push throughout the course of 2016, especially during Fire Safety Week later this year (26 September to 2 October). The event will seek to build on last year’s successes in raising awareness of the issues among industry figures and the public alike.

Last year’s campaign is estimated to have reached 4.7 million people. It raised its Twitter following by 30%, and attracted 129 supporting organizations from across the property, facilities management and construction industries. Moreover, its safety videos on YouTube gained an extra 5,800 viewers. It also gained all-important awareness among politicians.
Oldfield was reiterating concerns aired by the BWF during last year’s Fire Door Safety Week. The 2015 event took a “big bite out of the problem” but there’s a lot still to do in order to raise awareness said the organisation’s chief executive, Iain McIlwee.

“Together we are reaching millions of building owners, users and professions whose job it is to keep us safe. But the scale of the issue still threatens to swamp us,” he said. “We need even more to join us to voice our concerns regarding the lack of basic knowledge of fire door safety by the very individuals and organisations who have the formal responsibility to keep us safe in the buildings they own or manage.

“When the worst happens, it is the compartmentation of fire and the correct installation of certified doorsets which buys us time, creating safe refuge and a protected route for the emergency services to come to our aid. On average there are 25 people seriously injured or killed in building fires everyday in Great Britain. Our friends, our loved ones, our work colleagues, our tenants, our fire officers. This cannot continue.”

Fire doors are critical, of course, but they are not the only component of passive fire protection. Some building materials, such as brick or steel frame, come with fire resistance built in as it were, but other materials – timber being the prime example – require additional treatment, whether in terms of chemical treatment or cladding to provide it with fire resistance. The aim, on structural elements, is to maintain load bearing capacity, but other aspects of passive fire protection are intended to maintain the integrity of compartments – not just to limit the spread of fire, but also heat and smoke – for as long as possible.

Passive fire protection elements include fire-resisting walls and partitions; suspended ceilings; fire resistant glazing; cavity barriers, intumescent seals, fire resistant duct work, and seals for pipes, cables and other services, among others.

The latter are perhaps especially critical, relatively speaking, in that services breach the compartments that seek to contain fire; a lack of suitable seals can provide an avenue for fire to spread beyond its point of origin.

As the ASFP says: “Any building services that pass through separating elements such as cables, pipes or fire resisting ducts need to be fire stopped to ensure that the service does not provide an easy route for fire. These are critically important since they are often located in concealed spaces, which means that fire can pass unnoticed. It is vital that all protection measures are correctly designed, specified and installed if the building is to behave as expected should fire break out.”

When it comes to shielding services from fire, a range of products are available; inserts for electrical socket boxes; loft covers; luminaire covers and fittings for lighting, sleeves for pipe and electrical ducts, and more. They all share one thing in common – to hinder the spread of fire for a specified period of time.

The absence of such passive fire protection elements can be a false economy, as well as a danger to a building and its occupants, according to the Manchester-based manufacturer of such systems, Tenmat.

“The fire protection and fire compartmentation of any building represents a relatively small proportion of the overall build cost but can be the single difference between a building being subjected to minor damage or full structural failure and possible tragedy should a fire occur,” the company says.

“Fire and smoke can rapidly spread through any unprotected or incorrectly protected service penetration and hidden cavities, careful selection of the fire protection products will delay or prevent this threat.”

As BWF-CERTIFIRE’s Oldfield said in regard to firedoors – a point just as valid for wider passive fire protection systems – the message is simple: “Ensure the right products are specified and installed correctly, and that means third-party certificated products. Anything less is frankly an unnecessary and unacceptable risk.”

This article first appeared in the Summer 2016 print edition of Timber in Construction magazine