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Published: Friday, 8/8/2008

Balanced Building Design Essential to Fire Safety

(NewsUSA) - Every 20 seconds in the United States, a fire department responds to a fire somewhere, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In 2003 alone, nearly 4,000 people lost their lives to fire, and property owners incurred an estimated $12 billion in damages.

According to the National Concrete Masonry Association, the loss of life and property from fire could be reduced if more buildings were constructed with a comprehensive, "balanced design" approach to fire safety.

Balanced design has both active and passive elements: noncombustible materials in walls and floors to limit the spread of fire; automatic detection such as smoke detectors; and automatic sprinklers to suppress the fire until it can be extinguished.

Smoke detectors and sprinklers are considered "active" fire protection. But both can be compromised due to mechanical or electrical failures. That's why it is equally important that buildings have passive fire protection -- walls and floors made of a noncombustible material such as concrete masonry -- to help contain a fire and limit its damage. These three active and passive components, working together, provide the highest levels of protection.

Concrete masonry maintains its structural integrity during a fire and helps keep fire from spreading. This is important not only for building occupants but also for firefighters.

"One firefighter dies every 18 months in the collapse of a burning building constructed with lightweight wood," said Vincent Dunn, retired deputy chief of the Fire Department of New York. "At one time, a fire-resistive building was a structure that, barring a collapse or explosion, would confine a fire to one floor. Today we no longer have fire-resistive buildings. If sprinklers or firefighters do not extinguish a fire, the buildings will not confine it."

The National Concrete Masonry Association supports building codes that require balanced design and encourages code-writing officials to require buildings to be constructed with noncombustible materials in walls and floors.

"The nation's fire statistics could be greatly improved by recognizing the importance of fire containment requirements to stop fires from spreading, in addition to suppression and detection systems," said Mark B. Hogan, president of the National Concrete Masonry Association.

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