Bill McHugh, Executive Director
Firestop Contractors International Association
Tel: (630) 690-0682
April 18, 2003, FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Wheaton, Illinois - The Firestop Contractors International Association, an alliance of leading contractors, manufacturers, and regulatory officials, is calling for better design and building practices to reduce deaths from fire and smoke. The association believes that "passive" fire protection - which include firewalls and specialized floor and ceiling assemblies with firestopping systems - might have prevented some of the 120 deaths in two recent tragedies at a nursing home in Connecticut, and nightclubs in Chicago, Illinois, and West Warwick, Rhode Island.
"Sprinkler systems are excellent tools for controlling fires, but they are not a panacea," says Bill McHugh, the association's Executive Director. That is why we strongly recommend the use of passive fire protection systems in addition to sprinklers. Together, these technologies can save money and lives."
Sprinklers use water-misting action to control fires. However, even high-end "suppression" systems cannot stop smoke from traveling throughout buildings. Smoke can make it hard for occupants to see their way to safety; depending on the nature of the fire, smoke can also be toxic. Moreover, sprinkler systems require a triggering of the activation mechanism, a continuous supply of water, with sufficient pressure to function properly and may prove useless in a catastrophic event, including a terrorist attack. They can also go out of service during maintenance or construction - as with the 1992 blaze at First Meridian Bank in Philadelphia and the 1991 inferno at First Interstate Bank in Los Angeles - or be rendered useless by fire.
While the association fully endorses the use of sprinkler systems, fire history suggests that there is no single way to make buildings safe when fire breaks out. Owners, architects, and engineers can reduce the risk of property losses and human casualties by incorporating "passive fire and life-safety systems" into the design of commercial, institutional and industrial buildings. These passive fire protection systems may include assemblies rated for their ability to resist fire and smoke; fire barriers, such as drywall, concrete walls and floors, and concrete block walls; floors composed of wood and lightweight concrete; and ceiling assemblies made of tile or drywall. For these systems to be effective, it is necessary to seal service items that penetrate fire walls and floors with firestopping, fire and smoke dampers, or fire doors. These passive systems with firestopping are meant to stop fire from leaping into other parts of a building. Typically, they create "compartments" that can protect occupants and contain fires until sprinklers control the fire, or building personnel, or firefighters extinguish the blaze.
"An economist might argue that these passive fire protection steps are redundant if sprinklers are in place," says McHugh. "But experience shows that active and passive firestopping systems play distinct, complementary roles."
Statistics show that losses decrease when smoke and fire are contained to the room of origin, allowing sprinkler systems to work most effectively. A combination of active and passive firestopping systems may have reduced the number of deaths in the Hartford nursing home fire on February 26. According to the Associated Press, "patients were moved to another part of the building after the fire" ..meaning passive fire protection systems worked to allow use of non affected parts of the building. One resident told her daughter on a cell phone that "she heard the fire doors closing and began to weep" Her words indicate that passive fire and smoke compartments - consisting of fire doors, fire dampers, and firewalls - made it possible for people to reach safe, protected spaces away from the fire.
The added cost of "fire- and smoke-rated construction" is often negligible. Most concrete floor assemblies in commercial and industrial buildings are already rated for fire resistance, according to Rik Master, USG Corp., Chicago, IL. Drywall assemblies in commercial buildings, with one layer of sheetrock on each side of the wall, are typically constructed of 5/8" thick drywall. Manufacturers typically supply "Type X" for 5/8" thick drywall, which becomes the major component of a fire resistance rated assembly anyway when used on both sides of a wall. The only difference between a fire resistance rated and non-rated assembly is that a non-rated assembly does not extend past the ceiling to the floor above, breaking continuity of the fire assembly. "The metal studs may be beefed up a bit as well, but is normally 3-5/8" anyway in commercial, institutional construction", according to Master.
In new construction, the additional cost of creating a firewall is even less than in renovation applications. A worker can hang a fire-rated sheet of drywall as fast as a non-rated sheet; the fire-rated wallboard is just a few feet longer to reach the ceiling. The difference in cost is in the "finishing" or firestopping of the fire and smoke resistance rated compartments to ensure that penetrations and joints in the walls and floors are properly sealed. Cables, pipes, wall tops, and building perimeter joints should be sealed with tested and listed firestopping systems, fire dampers, and fire door systems. Again, the added cost is negligible to provide effective compartmentation in addition to sprinkler systems.
The association recommends the use of passive firestopping systems - in conjunction with fast-response suppression sprinkler systems, fire and smoke alarms - as a solution for offices, apartments, schools, hospitals, and other high-occupancy facilities. "Coupled with sprinklers," McHugh says, "effective compartmentation with passive firestopping systems could prevent another spate of disasters related to fire and smoke."
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The Firestop Contractors International Association (FCIA) is an alliance of specialty firestopping contractors, manufacturers, and concerned associate members who seek to save lives and protect property through specialized knowledge of their trade. FCIA recently worked with Factory Mutual Approvals, a major insurer of commercial and industrial properties, to develop FM 4991, the "Standard for the Approval of Firestop Contractors," which subjects firestopping firms, their personnel and processes to vigorous testing. For a listing of FCIA Members, and FM 4991 Approved Contractors, visit www.fcia.org.