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Volume 6   Issue 10               November  2005

Code Concerns

A Balanced Approach to Building Codes
Passive Versus Active Fire Safety at Issue
by Larry Livermore

The Alliance for Smoke Containment and Control (AFSCC), was formed in 1999 by a coalition of industry stakeholders to promote a passive approach to building safety and has been working to influence model code development. With recent trends away from the use of passive fire protection features including fire doors and partitions when active suppression systems are used, the AFSCC seeks to reverse the course and promote a balanced design.

When the International Building Code (IBC) was drafted from provisions of the existing three model codes, some important requirements related to the allowable height and area of structures were modified. These modifications depend upon the type of construction and presence of sprinkler systems. According to the AFSCC, “a balanced fire protection design enables a safer egress for building occupants and firefighters, and a reduction in property damage during successful sprinkler activation or in the event of a sprinkler failure, or failure of a component of the passive or active fire protection system.”

It is this approach to design that is at the heart of the AFSCC activities. Fire-resistant construction methods, along with fully operational sprinkler systems ensure the best level of safety for building occupants and firefighters. While previous model code provisions allowed increases in building height or allowable area, the new IBC allows increases in both with the presence of sprinkler systems. That increase in the size of buildings, combined with the recorded incidents of sprinkler failures, concerns AFSCC membership. 

During the recent International Code Council (ICC) Final Action Hearings, more than one dozen public comments dealing with passive protection were considered by the ICC governmental voting members. Fire code officials representing various jurisdictions around the country testified in support of passive fire protection features. The National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM), in particular, urged the ICC body to roll back some of the new provisions for height and area. 

Using the example of a 100,000-square-foot, multi-story extended-care facility, NASFM supporting materials drew a comparison between the IBC requirements to those found in the legacy codes, the 1997 Uniform Building Code (UBC), the 1999 Standard Building Code (SBC) and the 1999 National Building Code (NBC). According to the NASFM analysis, the three-story construction would require one-hour fire ratings for structural framing, floors and roof systems under the SBC or NBC and one-hour roofs combined with two-hour floors and structure under the UBC. Yet, under the 2003 IBC, this structure would not require rated assemblies. This omission is of particular concern to the NASFM when the considerations of safe escape of able-bodied persons and the safe rescue of immobile persons, of extreme importance in this type of facility, are examined. The NASFM indicates that safety of firefighters, who are often charged with fire suppression and rescue operations, is also at stake.

There is good news, however. The ICC recently added the issue of balanced fire protection to the agenda of the ICC Code Technology Committee (CTC). The scope of this project is “to investigate what constitutes an acceptable balance between active fire protection and passive fire protection measures with respect to meeting the fire and life safety objectives of the IBC.” 

In the recently published CTC work plan, the ICC laid out a means to study the issue, involve stakeholders in the process and identify findings and recommendations to the ICC board of directors. The end result of the CTC activity may include code change proposals to the IBC.

Other industry efforts parallel CTC activity. The AFSCC will continue its communications and educational activities and the issue of balanced fire safety has been added to the work of the Door Safety Council (DSC), an industry association group that includes representatives from the Window and Door Manufacturers Association (WDMA), the Door and Hardware Institute, Builders Hardware Manufacturers Association and others. With the cooperation and involvement of fire code officials who have adopted the issue as well, it is becoming more and more likely that the “passive versus active” debate will get the attention and consideration it deserves. 

Michael Fischer serves as director of codes and regulatory compliance for the Window and Door Manufacturers Association based in Des Plaines, Ill. 

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