Fire safety – getting it right

Association for Specialist Fire Protection CEO Wilf Butcher explains why passive fire protection within buildings is important and looks at common shortcuts that may impact the safety of your home.

Passive fire protection makes buildings safe when fire occurs by ensuring the building does not collapse and by subdividing it to prevent the spread of smoke and fire. It comprises those elements such as fire doors, walls, protection to the structural frame and protection to services passing through walls/floors which are specifically engineered to fulfil this function.

Passive fire protection works by keeping fire and smoke in a single compartment, ensuring there are no gaps through which the flames and smoke can escape. Put simply, passive fire protection is all about keeping fire in a sealed box, giving people elsewhere within a building the opportunity to escape and preventing fire from spreading to neighbouring properties.

The Building Regulations set minimum standards for fire safety in the design and construction of domestic, commercial, residential and industrial buildings, with these provisions expanded in Statutory Guidance Documents (e.g. Approved Document B in England and Wales) which give detailed guidance on how to meet the Building Regulations. It is vital that all passive fire protection measures are correctly designed, specified and installed if the building is to behave as expected should a fire break out.

While it is not unreasonable to assume that installed fire protection will perform as expected in a fire, the reality is that often this is not the case. Unlike the installation of a boiler system or wiring of a building where proof of competence is a legal requirement, the installation of many types of fire protection can be undertaken by absolutely anyone. There is no requirement for any form of qualification or training, which often leads to inappropriately specified and incorrectly installed fire protection that offers little or no benefit to the fire performance of a building.

Common mistakes
Fire stopping is one of the least understood but most commonly installed elements of all passive fire protection systems. It affects just about every aspect of any building from fire doors to the protection of penetrations passing through a fire wall.

In the case of a pipe collar, for instance, the documentation may state that it has been tested to achieve a fire rating of one hour. But, unless you are aware of the make-up of the pipe with which it was fire tested and their combined performance during the test, how can you be sure that the collar you have installed is appropriate to the pipe you wish to protect?

The frequent misuse of ‘fire rated’ polyurethane (PU) foams is another typical example of inappropriately specified fire protection.

PU foams are invariably used in linear gap or service penetration applications. Their fire performance is determined by testing to the appropriate national or European fire resistance test standards.

Once tested to the required standards, it is important that the scope of application of the test results is assessed by a competent person as such products must not be used outside of the scope of such guidance.

For example, PU foams tested as linear gap seals cannot be used to seal pipe or cable penetrations unless they have been tested in that end-use application; and since PU foams are combustible they should not be used in the presence of penetrating metallic pipes or cables, for fire-stopping openings for small plastic pipes, or to seal an opening around an intumescent wrap system. PU foam used to fill a 10mm x 10mm gap may offer the four hours of protection described on the tin, but use it in a 50mm x 50mm gap and the protection offered may fall to just 10 or 11 minutes.

Fire doors
Another common misconception is that ordinary timber doors can be converted into fire doors by applying an intumescent coating to the surface. Unfortunately, without very clear and substantive test evidence, such an approach simply will not work for the vast majority of doors.

A specifically designed fire doorset is tested in a standardised manner by a recognised fire test laboratory. The fire test report will limit the result to the tested construction with only minor variations. It’s critical to recognise that the test applies to the entire door system (referred to as a doorset), which includes the essential door ironmongery, the door frame, the abutments and that the result is limited to the physical dimensions of the doorset tested. Change any of these and the test evidence is no longer valid, as it is not applicable.

So, if you’re considering ‘upgrading’ an existing ordinary door using a proprietary system, seek the essential supporting test data and check its limitations of use. Remember an ad-hoc test carried out for the manufacturer’s own benefit is inadequate. Such test results should be subject to a full report in accordance with the required standard, undertaken by a UKAS-accredited test body.

Look for the logo
By specifying third party certificated products and contractors you can be assured that works undertaken will use appropriate materials which will be installed correctly. The Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) comprises manufacturers and installers of passive fire protection products and systems. ASFP contractor members are required to hold third party certification for installation of products. So remember, always look for the logo.

Reading the installation instructions is only part of the story. Unless you understand why you are installing the system and what the implications might be should you do so incorrectly, there can be no certainty of the completed installation fulfilling its intended function.

For further information on passive fire protection and to access a wealth of advice, technical guidance, videos and publications; all free to download, visit www.asfp.org.uk