You Don’t Have to Be an Expert to Maximize Your College’s Passive Fire Protection

Familiarizing yourself with fire codes, conducting well-timed assessments and making the necessary repairs can make an enormous difference in limiting the impact of a fire on your campus.

The unfortunate reality of fire safety systems on many campuses is that they’re usually installed once and never thought of again. During installation or construction phases, schools, universities and hospitals follow fire codes as much as necessary to pass inspections, and then proceed to invest their resources and attention on seemingly more pressing matters.

Along the way, the emphasis on maintaining fire safety systems fades, in part because the everyday hustle on campus favors convenience over safety. If a fire door is hard to open and close frequently, someone may prop it open. When minor renovations are completed, there’s often no follow up fire safety inspection. Building managers can’t see the fire ducts, so they forget they’re even there.

“It’s the kind of thing that’s out of sight out of mind,” says Michael Lohr, director of marketing for Red Hawk Fire and Security. “Oftentimes, no one pays much attention after the initial set up.”

Things get even more problematic when you talk about the student housing environment. Students are known to burn candles, remove smoke detectors and pull dangerous “pranks” that can compromise traditional fire safety systems.

These are the reasons campuses run into trouble. It’s easy to fall into the trap of allowing the deterioration of fire safety systems or not noticing someone has tampered with them. That’s what makes passive fire protection systems so important.

Along with active fire protection and education, passive fire protection is one of the three components of overall fire protection strategies. Passive fire protection focuses on containing or slowing fires using things like fire-resistant walls, floors and doors. Things like fire proof wraps, paints and coating also count as passive fire protection.

What Is Passive Fire Protection?
Passive fire protection systems attempt to compartmentalize buildings to prevent or slow the spread of fires. Where active fire protection systems detect and suppress fires, passive fire protection systems aim to limit the spread of fires to minimize building damage. Passive fire systems also help firefighters attempting to put out a fire and give building occupants more time to escape.

Examples of passive fire protection include fire-resistance rated walls, fire resistant glass, firestops, grease ducts and spray fireproofing. Examples of active fire protection include fire extinguishers, sprinklers, smoke detectors, firefighting foam systems and hypoxic air fire prevention.

“Passive fire protection is kind of a last line of defense, because it’s mainly material to prevent fire, smoke or gas from spreading, so there’s nothing that anyone has to do to activate it,” Michael Lohr says. “No one has to pull a pull station or anything like that. It works by itself if it’s tested properly and maintained.”

The purpose of passive fire protection is to work in conjunction with active fire systems or, if necessary, to work when other fire protection components fail.

“The thought process is that [passive fire protection] is not meant to replace existing fire protection systems, but to work in concert with those systems,” Lohr explains. “So when all else fails, like sprinklers or alarms, at least I know I’ve got passive fire protection to prevent a quick spread of fire until first responders can arrive.”

Ensuring that your passive fire protection systems are maintained might sound like an overwhelming task, but it’s actually quite manageable. All it takes is an understanding of a few requirements, undergoing proper inspections and budgeting for regular maintenance.

Know Your Fire Codes
Knowing what’s required on your campus is the first step to establishing fire safety. Many compliance codes are developed by the National Fire Protection Association, or the NFPA. Understanding your area’s Life Safety Code, also known as NFPA code 101, is a good first step. From there, certain codes focus on passive fire protection measures more than others.

The International Building Code, or IBC, is perhaps the most important passive fire protection standard to understand. This 700-page code has supplanted many other codes, but mainly deals with fire prevention. It stipulates the materials to be used in building construction phases as well as standards for door, wall, foundation and roof construction. The code also gives criteria for interior finishes in new and existing structures, including outlines when using fire stopping material.

Building foundations are important because some material is going to be more susceptible to fire damage and collapse than others. For example, a building made of wood is going to have less structural protection than a building made of brick.

When it comes to renovations and things involving electrical wiring, there’s the National Electric Code, which is a regional code despite its misleading name. The code, also known as NFPA 70, gives standards for installing electric wiring and in some ways complements the IBC. It’s important that schools, hospitals and universities understand their responsibility to inspect even minor electrical additions.

RELATED: University of Central Florida Streamlines Life Safety for New Dorms

“If there are any holes in the wall, or any kind of remodeling where someone tried to run wires or cables through, you have to make sure it’s done properly,” says Tony Yuen, the Fire Marshal for the City of Berkeley, Calif. “There are requirements to apply fire stopper if there’s wall damage and make any repairs needed.”

Other important NFPA codes to understand have to do with inspections. NFPA 80, for instance, states, “Fire door assemblies shall be inspected and tested not less than annually, and a written record of the inspection shall be signed and kept for inspection by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).”

The yearly inspections are necessary because of the frequent problems inspectors see with fire doors.

“The most common violation you see is that fire doors are blocked open,” Yuen says. “Basically, fire-rated doors have to be self-closing and self-latching, but a lot of times they’re propped open or they remove the door closer so it no longer functions properly.”

About the Author

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Zach Winn is a journalist living in the Boston area. He was previously a reporter for Wicked Local and graduated from Keene State College in 2014, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and minoring in political science.

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