by Alejandro Uribe
Learn how to identify and apply the 6 main strategies for fire protection
Fire is a real and present danger in society. The threat of fire in a built environment1 pushes those in the fire protection industry to continue to identify ways to reduce the likelihood of a fire and, if a fire occurs, how to keep it contained. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)2 has developed more than 300 codes and standards, currently used throughout the world, focused on reducing the loss of life and property. With so much information there is a need for context and organization. Even those in the fire protection industry find it difficult to know what the parameters of their knowledge should be. Therefore, going back to the fundamental pillars of fire protection can help identify a fire industry professional’s expected contribution to the field.
The main premise of fire protection is: Fire can occur in almost any circumstance. All that is needed for a hostile fire to originate is a single event that brings heat and a flammable source together.
Source of heat and source of fuel
Unfortunately, many times this happens because of carelessness, or poor judgment. Other times the cause of fire is a natural occurrence beyond one’s control. Natural Disasters include, for example, tornadoes and earthquakes, which in turn also may result in fire hazardous conditions; Shaking causes movement or damage of equipment and contents and this can result in flammable gases or liquids and other combustible material being released and coming into contact with ignition sources, such as open flames or electrical arcing. (People might remember the most recent 2017 Mexico Post Earthquake Fire Explosions that went viral in social media.)
After an earthquake, the first major latent risk is fire
Regardless of the cause of the fire, the main goal of fire protection is to safeguard human lives. Property, capital and environment preservation are very important, but all come a distant second to saving lives. The 6 strategies of fire protection come from past fire experiences which posed questions, and in response, created steps for intervention to keep people and property safe.
In 2015 there was a large fire in New York City referred to as the East Village Fire3. An explosion occurred due to a gas leak from an illegal tap in the ground floor restaurant of the building. The resulting fire grew enough to destroy three buildings.
East Village Fire due to a gas leak explosion, NYC, 2015
Could the fire have been prevented? Once it started, did construction materials help slow down the spread of flames? Was the fire department notified promptly? Did the buildings have fire sprinkler systems and did they work? Why was the fire not contained — and instead spread from room to room, floor to floor, and eventually building to building? Were people able to evacuate in time? These are the many questions asked when a fire of this magnitude happens. Furthermore, it is these types of questions that have encouraged fire industry professionals to form different strategies at certain stages to minimize damage and, more importantly, to save lives. There are a total of six main strategies as introduced below; These strategies comprise the series of opportunities that we have to intervene fire along a timeline. As time passes, the growth potential of fire increases.
Following are six strategies of Fire Protection
The first strategy in Fire Protection is to PREVENT. Planning to prevent a fire completely is the first goal. This usually begins with educating occupants. Most common fire prevention practices include information on risk reduction, control and waste management, and cleaning practices. Important fire prevention methods include the use of lightning protection systems on buildings and homes, good housekeeping – minimizing dust and lint, and keeping flammable materials away from heat sources.
Dust in enough concentrations is capable of behaving like a flammable gas; consider this example of a Corn Starch Dust Explosion (corn starch is a very common food ingredient). What could surprise you is that materials that are normally considered non-combustible are easily ignited when in dust form! Consider this Metal Dust Collector Fire which is hard to extinguish.
Second, if fire is not prevented, then the next step is to REDUCE the potential for rapid-fire growth. We can reduce the severity of the fire through design, selection and handling of materials and product. Interior finish, correct storage practices, and correct classification of materials are very crucial aspects at this stage.
Common steps to reduce the potential of fire growth
Restrict flammable materials used in furnishings
Use fire retardant materials
Limit the total quantity of combustibles in a given area
Apply correct storage practices
Use interior room finishes that prevent the spread of flames and smoke
Manage combustible materials and liquids safely
Third, take the opportunity to DETECT fire early, which allows for early intervention. Today there are many specialized smoke detection systems. These systems allow for the detection of minimum concentrations of smoke. The quicker the detector senses smoke and initiates the alarm—the more likely lives and property can be saved. Some interesting data from the NFPA handbook about fire detection systems:
The risk of dying has been reduced more than half in home fires
96% of homes have at least one smoke detector, according to 2004 data, mostly thanks to regulation enforcement (in 1972 less than 5% of homes had smoke alarms)
The fourth step is to SUPPRESS fire automatically or manually. Having sprinkler systems that are in good working condition — along with hydrants, pumps and extinguishers – aids in the reduction of death and damage during a fire.
The NFPA Handbook states
When sprinklers are present, the probability of death in a fire is reduced by 2/3. Sprinklers operate in 93% of fires that are within their area of protection, and when they do, they are effective in 96% of the cases; we can say that sprinkler systems are 89% reliable (0.93 x 0.96 = 0.89).
When sprinklers fail, in 65% of the cases, deliberately inoperative (ex. when a control valve is closed). Other reasons include lack of maintenance (16%), the system being designed for a different occupancy (5%), and damages to the system (3%).
Fifth, the focus is to CONFINE the fire in the room of origin, through correct compartmentalization and other passive fire protection methods. Statistically, the greatest number of fatalities occur when the fire extends beyond the room of origin. There are many fire victims that can be saved by strategies that block or delay the passage of fire or smoke between floors and rooms. Fire confinement may be achieved by:
Using fire barriers to stop the spread of fires between zones
Correct use of fire rated doors and windows
Correct use of fire stop measures to restore fire ratings when construction is penetrated by conduits, cables, ducts pipes or structural elements
Enough separation between buildings to prevent the spread of fire
Enforce regulations where heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems might draw hot air, smoke and gas transport mechanisms
The last step is MOVE occupants to safe locations – taking advantage of the time gained from applying the previous steps.
The following is general knowledge from John R. Hall Jr and Arthur E. Cote4:
At least two means of egress, in remote locations, available from every space
Appropriate number of exits correctly spaced and sized
All elements that make up the exits must meet the appropriate capacity
Protection must be provided to the means of egress by:
Signaling egress clearly by providing adequate lighting
Restricting combustible loads and interior finishes on escape routes
Compartmentation of exit stairs
Correct use of fire barriers
Using smoke control to protect the atmosphere during egress
Ensuring the structural integrity of escape routes
Egress to the exterior, to a protected area or to adequate onsite protection, if occupants are to remain in the building
Enforcement of building and life safety codes has grown worldwide
Fire protection professionals will continue to improve safety in built environments. The tendency is clear: there seems to be a downward trend in incidents of fire, fire deaths, and property damage worldwide.
Downtrend in fire deaths (excludes events of September 11, 2001)5
A huge contribution to this trend has been made by enforcing stronger regulations regarding life safety and property protection. In a society where fire is seen on a regular basis, the effort invested has been important in updating, maintaining, and enforcing fire protection codes, standards, and practices—and that effort is paying off. The 6 Strategies for Fire Protection provide a good guide for taking the steps and measures necessary to protect life and property from the dangers of fire in a built environment.
References & Links
- A built environment, in the engineering and social sciences field, refers to an inhabited human-made setting that consists of things such as buildings, parks, transportation, etc.
- 2015 East Village gas explosion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015_East_Village_gas_explosion
- Section 3 Chapter 1, NFPA Fire Protection Handbook, 20th Edition, 2008 John R. Hall, Jr and Arthur E. Cote
- Figure 3.1.7 Section 3 Chapter 9, Information and Analysis for Fire Protection, NFPA Fire Protection Handbook 20th Edition – Data from NFPA Survey