The Importance of Balanced Fire Protection

by Kevin Norcross

Balanced fire protection is a critical topic for the building industry, especially as we head into 2020 and the revisions to the International Building Code. The importance of the topic—and the levels of nuance we’re dealing with—led me to have a conversation recently with Thom Zaremba, partner at Roetzel and Andress and the fenestration industry’s IBC consultant. Thom is currently working diligently, along with others industry professionals, to develop a design guide for school security (a project I wholeheartedly endorse and support).

Vetrotech Saint-Gobain Fire-rated glass - Verizon, Chicago
Kevin Norcross (KN): Thom, I doubt anyone has spent more time on this topic than you have. What are your thoughts on balanced fire protection?
Thom Zaremba (TZ) : It’s important to remember that there are two standards that have different requirements in North America. NFPA 101 has a specific provision that requires redundancy: If you have a life safety component to a building, one system, without backup, isn’t adequate. That means you’re more likely to have passive and active systems working together. The NFPA is the darling code of the federal government for fire protection. When the government has its say, construction is going to require compliance with NFPA 101—like hospitals, federal buildings, army barracks and others.
Three years ago or so, we proposed adding a comparable redundancy provision in the IBC and that proposal was disapproved. When combining the three regional codes (SBCI, ICBO and BOCA), the founders of the IBC decided—as a matter of practicality—to take the least stringent requirements from all three regional codes in virtually every instance to avoid having buildings being built during the transition fall below the minimum standards of the new code, namely, the IBC. This, in turn, permitted a lot of tradeoffs—including allowing sprinklers to replace passive building material requirements. However, one place where redundancy is required by the IBC is in Means of Egress, or exits.
KN: There’s always the concern when systems aren’t balanced that active fire suppression methods like sprinklers can—and do—fail. Why isn’t a balanced approached more widely accepted? What are the barriers?
TZ: The IBC has not been terribly friendly toward increasing the redundancy between active and passive systems. It seems to be holding the line where it is now, which is to preserve redundancy in Means of Egress areas, or exits but not to expand it to others areas —depending on the type of occupancy. Other industries, including the sprinkler industry, are working to expand their footprint which, unfortunately, often erodes redundant protections—that’s what we keep our eyes on too.
In life safety, redundancy is very important. Just like in your car, the braking systems and airbags are both wonderful … but you also need the redundancy of an emergency brake and seat belts as well.
KN: What should stakeholders—designers, architects, contractors—know about balanced fire protection that they may not?
TZ: Often when designers are thinking about fire-rated construction materials, they immediately think of mortar and concrete blocks. But you can create stunning Means of Egress areas, or exits using glass—it doesn’t have to always be gypsum board covering concrete blocks, which is a downright vanilla design. Contractors have the burden of carrying out a designer’s vision with very practical solutions. There are always going to be active and passive fire systems in a project; and when you have a mix, you need to know where fire-resistant and fire-protective products are required. If there’s a mistake, the best-case scenario is that the fire code inspector is going to require retrofitting; the worst is that someone will be hurt or killed. The window makers and the guys who are doing the installing should be very careful that they’re not installing non-fire-protective glazing in a location that requires them. My big pitch to trade organizations like the National Glass Association is that the job is to always pick the right glass for the right applications.
KN: Given the complications and nuances in the IBC and other governing bodies, what is the ideal fire protection situation?
TZ: Redundant safety systems, especially when you’re dealing with children. I’d like to see more passive systems coupled with active systems in schools—not just trading sprinklers for reduced construction costs. Not only are we confronting the possibility of sprinklers that on occasion do fail, or are not effective when they do operate, now we have to deal with active shooter situations and the codes are starting to look at that. I’m on a number of committees and task groups that will be looking at this and I’m sure it will result in the level of increased redundancy in fire safety features and ballistic safety features. Schools ought to be safer than they currently are.
I couldn’t agree more, Thom.