Passive Fire Protection, Oct 2003



FCIA CONTACT: BILL McHUGH – 630.690.0682


The Firestop Contractors International Association, (FCIA) a not for profit group of specialty firestopping contractors from the US, Canada and the United Kingdom, was saddened with the rest of the country to hear about the loss of life at the high rise County Building in Chicago recently.

FCIA is not part of the investigation and has seen no official report on the causes for the loss of life. However, we've all heard and read in the media that deaths occurred due to smoke inhalation in stairwells while people were trying to escape the blaze and smoke. Stairwell areas are usually known as "havens of safety" in the fire protection industry. In this case, stairwells were death traps as they became smoke filled for reasons yet unknown, and had locked doors for security purposes, causing entrapment.

As a response to this tragedy, there has been a loud cry for "one solution " to prevent future loss of life ranging from installing sprinkler systems to suppress the fire in the area where it started ("room of origin"), to building occupants wearing a single use oxygen mask to escape fire and smoke safely.

Although one "miracle cure" would be great, the reality is there is no "one thing" that may have prevented the disastrous loss of life. Here are some fire protection features the expert fire investigation panel should consider to prevent future tragedy:

If the fire’s "room of origin”.......

  • had a fire resistance rated assembly around the room with appropriate fire doors, fire and smoke dampers and firestopping systems, the fire and smoke may not have traveled from the room of origin (storage room).
  • pipe, cable and other penetrating items through fire resistance rated assemblies were properly firestopped, and had air leakage ratings, the smoke from the fire may not have traveled from the room of origin.
  • was equipped with sprinklers, the fire might have been limited to the room of origin.....but the smoke might still have traveled.

As a forensic analysis of this tragedy continues, we shouldn't limit the conclusion to a single solution of sprinkler suppression systems. Sprinklers, while an effective way to limit the spread of fire, are not the only solution. An active fire suppression sprinkler system may not be perfect. Also, as a sprinkler system is containing the fire to the area of origin, it creates smoke. Passive fire protection features can limit the spread of both fire and smoke. As seat belts and air bags are most effective when used together, so are active and passive fire protection systems.

Passive Fire, Smoke and Life Safety systems, such as fire and smoke resistance rated assemblies, sealed with firestopping systems, fire and smoke dampers, fire doors, sprinkler suppression systems, may have helped make "havens of safety", truly areas of refuge during fire and smoke egress conditions.

Dr. Gene Corley, Team Leader for the World Trade Center Building Performance Study, stated in a recent Chicago Sun Times Article, “Fire safety cannot be an “either or” proposition. Buildings for which sprinklers are appropriate should also have fire-resistant construction for better fire protection. Anything less puts occupants and emergency responders at risk”.

Passive compartmentation fire protection systems and active suppression sprinkler systems may have prevented the loss of life at the County Building in Chicago. Maybe our call to action as a result of this tragedy should be “Why not have both?”


Scott Rankin, President – 610.485.9436
Ray Usher, Vice President – 763.571.7646
Bob Patton, Treasurer
Roger McKenzie, Secretary
Tom Hottenroth, Director
Richard Keeney, Director
Don Sabrsula, Director
Renee Woodruff, Director
Blasdel Reardon, Past President

For information, contact FCIA:

Firestop Contractors International Association
1257 Golf Circle
Wheaton, IL 60187
630.690.0682 Phone
630.690.2871 FAX
info@fcia.org Email
www.fcia.org Website
Copyright – FCIA 10/27/02

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