Time on your side

Time on your side

Even a drill hole the size of a pencil that hasn’t been adequately fire stopped can allow rapid spread of smoke in minutes. Here, Keith Wells, Managing Director of Quelfire, explains why effective fire stopping is essential to maintain the integrity of fire compartments.

It is now universally accepted that sub-divided buildings into a number of discreet compartments using fire rated walls and ceilings prevents the passage of fire from one cell to another for a given period of time. In the UK, it is Building Regulations’ Approved Document B that sets out the requirements, with the primary role of a fire compartment being to protect the means of escape, typically 30, 60, 90 or 120 minutes.

The person who is responsible for fire safety in a building has a duty of care towards occupants as well as any members of the emergency services, such as firefighters, who may be required to enter the premises to tackle the fire. Ensuring the integrity of the passive fire protection systems and so slowing the spread of flames, smoke and hot gases, will ensure the emergency services are able to carry out their role in as much safety as expected.

It is therefore vital buildings are designed with fire rated compartments and that these are effectively installed by contractors in site. That’s because occupants rely on the integrity of these fire compartments to ensure their safe evacuation, especially in larger, high rise buildings. For multi-storey residential buildings each flat is generally treated as its own ‘cell’, which means that fire spread from one cell to another will have been designed in from the outset.

Over the years as buildings are renovated or altered, fire compartments can be compromised. Simple changes, such as drilling a hole through a wall for new HVAC or IT services can result in a breach. Even a drill hole the size of a pencil that hasn’t been adequately fire stopped can allow rapid spread of smoke in minutes. This can lead to potentially devastating consequences in the event of a fire.

Risk assessment 

Building owners and facility managers should verify that whoever is undertaking the fire risk assessments includes a review of a building’s fire compartmentation, focussing on whether penetrating services have been suitably fire stopped, properly supported, and are in good condition and complete.

They should also check for third party certification, including products used and identification of installers. All fire stopped penetrations should be labelled and recorded. It should also be carried out by a competent person or external fire inspection company.

Most buildings, at some stage, undergo alterations. For instance, offices are regularly refurbished to attract new occupants, IT systems are updated or floor plans changed. Before beginning any of these works it is good practice to carry out a pre-works survey.

This will ensure that any penetrations in fire rated compartments are identified and an appropriate fire stopping solution selected, if required. These can then be added to the work schedule, ensuring that the work is done – it is still common for fire stopping to be missed on busy or large projects – and that the completed fire stop is correctly logged and documented.

Carrying out an assessment of existing fire compartments will also identify any pre-existing breaches which can be an issue on older buildings.

With the amount of refurbishment work carried out, it is common for the original plans to be out of date and certainly not reflective of the current state of the fire compartments. The only way to ascertain the true condition of the fire compartments is to carry out a detailed survey and this usually includes location and condition of compartmentation, record of penetrations and recommendation of remediation works.

The benefit of this is that it can form the basis of a working document that can be used alongside costing exercises and planning for any remediation fire stopping works. This approach helps to make best use of available resources and ensures that critical safety aspects such as fire stops are given the priority
they deserve.

System approach

In response to a growing awareness of the importance of effective firestopping to retain compartmentalisation we have introduced a one-stop-shop system.

Retaining the integrity of fire compartments maximises the amount of time available for people to escape the building and for fire services to tackle the blaze before it spreads.

Compartmentation of buildings was introduced to contain fires and to reduce the risk of it spreading and causing a much larger, more destructive incident. Recent events in the UK have highlighted the importance of ensuring effective fire compartmentation of buildings in enabling occupants to evacuate to safety. Larger fires are obviously more dangerous to occupants and rescue services as well as those living and working nearby.

The importance of fire compartments can’t be underestimated – they provide more time for people to escape by protecting the integrity of ‘means of escape’ routes such as stairways, whilst delaying the spread of fire to other areas of the building. Multi storey buildings in particular can result in people trapped on upper floors if fire compartments don’t perform as designed. Aside from the obvious danger to people, when a fire compartment doesn’t perform as it should fire and rescue services are prevented from reaching occupants, compounding the seriousness of the situation.

For modern buildings it is important to document all information relating to fire stopping wherever possible. Older buildings may require a detailed fire risk assessment and a structured, reasoned approach – depending on its age – so you can determine the current integrity or otherwise of fire compartments.

Even though there is widespread awareness of the dangers of fire spread, in a worrying number of cases, firestopping of service apertures is often an afterthought, resulting in poor choice of product or incorrect installation. Guidance should always be sought from both the manufacturer and the specialist contractor at the earliest possible opportunity to ensure firestopping is carried out effectively. The use of a system approach, backed by test evidence, along with the use of accredited installers that can provide certification will ensure the compartment performs to that set out at design stage.”