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Why not have both? 12/03

When I first got into the construction industry, I had a desire to create a company that acknowledged and accepted that our scope of work needed to be done correctly, according to code, whether we were told to or not! I set out to "raise the bar higher" so that other contractors who wanted to perform this Life Safety work that I had chosen, did it right, or they would be forced to get out of the business.

I set out to educate the industry of the need to have Passive Fire Protection in construction in addition to Active Fire Protection. Active Fire Protections are those alarms, automatic doors, dampered ducts, sprinklers and even the fire department, that stop or slow down the spread of a fire. Nothing can stop fire if it's uncontrolled, so the basic idea is to slow it down so that people can get to a safe place until the fire is put out or burns itself out. That's where Passive Fire Protection kicks in. Passive Fire Protection is the protection nobody sees. It's the way the building is constructed so that you can get out or go to a safe place until help arrives. We only know if it was there or not after a fire or tragedy has taken place.

In the last year or so, I've seen many changes take place. Many in the construction industry and many in the world we live in. I've seen actions by fanatics that have caused loss of life beyond what this country has ever seen before. I've also seen how the construction business has become a lesson in law long after a building or project is completed. And then I've seen the industry's direction grow and change to try and keep up with today's standards. There's a problem however. There are a lot of special interest groups who have their own agenda and in order to achieve their goals, they're willing to cut corners…Save Money!

What's happening in commercial construction in the last 6 years is definitely what could be called…CHANGE!

Let me digress for a second and tell you that my background is not construction. Frankly, I've only been in the construction industry for 6 years. I believe myself to be a quick learner and more importantly, I know that I don't know everything! But like I said, what I do know about commercial construction is that it's changed in the last 6 years for sure and not always for the good! Particularly, it's changed in my category of construction, I've seen changes that concern me and should concern anybody who has concern for their friends, relatives, loved ones or just a concern for their fellow citizens.

So back to Active and Passive Fire Protection. Codes are being adopted all over the United States that put a strong emphasis on Active Fire Protection. These codes for instance are saying that in many types of new buildings that are built and if they are fully sprinklered, we (you and me) don't need to have the additional protection of fire rated walls, floors or ceilings. They're betting that we don't have to worry about the possibility of a fire happening below us and the smoke rising up from floor to floor to our floor. To our office or to our room. The room, where we may be sleeping. The office where we may be working. The floors, the offices, the rooms, where our friends our family or our fellow citizens will be! They're betting that the Sprinklers will put out the fire or at least slow it down until the fire department gets there. Remember, that's another one of the Active Fire Protections that we have, the fire department. But let's consider something else. What if the sprinklers fail? If they're mechanical, then they can fail. In the last several years, there have been recalls on sprinkler heads, sprinkler failures in fires and even broken or frozen water lines that have render them inoperative. What happens when the power fails like it recently did in the North and the electricity to the pumps is off?

So who's willing to gamble! You're on the top of a high rise building. It's been built to today's codes and it is completely covered by sprinklers. There's a fire on the first floor. It starts to put out a lot of smoke. That's what fires do, put out a lot of smoke! By the way, more people die of smoke inhalation than they do from the fire. That's a fact nobody disputes! All those nasty toxic gases the fire is putting off. So you're on the top floor. The sprinklers fail. Can you get down in time? Will you be able to see or breath if there's dark smoke in the halls? Will the smoke be toxic, poisonous? Will you get out? Who knows? So are you ready to gamble with your life? How much money can "they" save to make it worth it to you?

The question is, what was there before that's not there now? What has CHANGED? One thing that's changed is the requirements for the Passive Fire Protection in the building. The tradeoffs have eliminated many of the rated barriers which have eliminated the extra protections we had before. Penetrations or joints of non-rated barriers are not required to be sealed like they are in rated barriers. The smoke caused by the fire has nothing in its way. This is what happened in the infamous MGM Grand Hotel fire where 84 people died. The majority of the people who died, died between the 21st and 27th floors. The fire was on the 1st and 2nd floors.

These tradeoffs saved money, no doubt! But will they save lives? Experts admit that sprinklers systems do fail occasionally. They site the law of diminishing returns. Is this a different way of saying…What's a life or two worth? What's yours worth?

I think some things are priceless. A life any life, is one of those!

So my question is simple. WHY NOT HAVE BOTH? Did we eliminate seat belts when airbags were created. Of course not! We got the benefit of both. Did it, does it cost more money? Without a doubt! So why is it that an industry that has suffered so many tragedies is trying to cut corners to save money? How much is a single life worth? How much is 84 of them worth. How much is the life of the 16 elderly occupants who died in their nursing home from smoke inhalation worth. They were in a single story building that didn't require even fire sprinklers. But they died from smoke…not fire!

So all said and done, WHY NOT HAVE BOTH?

We need the people who put the codes together to start thinking long term. By the time we find out (statistically) that they shouldn't have eliminated the Passive Fire Protection, how many buildings will have been built? Will we go back and fix them? Of course not! Then what? How will we (you and I) know which building is safe and which building is not? We won't!

Richard M. Keeney
Firestop International, L.L.C.
FCIA Board of Director
August 25, 2003