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Facility Safety: Focus on Firestops
The ever-changing role of institutional and commercial facilities makes it imperative that maintenance and engineering managers understand the important role a firestopping plan can play in a comprehensive fire-safety system.
With proper planning and sound, written procedures, firestopping can help provide a safer facility. To achieve these goals, managers will need to understand both their product options and the role of firestops.
When developing a safety plan to protect occupants of a building and to limit property damage, managers must consider the best way to contain all the destructive products of combustion: gases, flames, heat, and smoke. Detection, suppression, and containment or compartmentation are the three necessary elements of a fire-protection plan.
Detection and suppression systems, such as sprinklers and fire and smoke alarms, are referred to as active systems. Detection systems give early warning and work automatically to alert occupants and fire fighters, while suppression systems work automatically to extinguish the fire.
Containment or compartmentation are passive systems and serve as barriers to limit the spread of fire, smoke and toxic gases. When a fire is extinguished, toxic smoke and gases remain to move freely throughout a building without compartmentation. Moreover, dense smoke obscures vision and wayfinding.
Compartmentation involves erecting barriers to divide a building into smaller units that will confine a fire to its point of origin. This step helps to reduce risk and avoid reliance on any one element in a fire safety plan. Compartmentation is critical because it limits the rate at which fire can spread. It also complements automatic sprinkler systems and reduces risks to occupants and property.
Containment allows for a “defend in place” philosophy, providing a protected means of egress for occupants and a protected means of ingress for emergency personnel. Walls — load-bearing or not — as well as floors and ceilings can serve as fire barriers so long as they have a fire rating. Fire barriers are tested to the requirements of American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) E119 (ANSI/UL263) and rated to resist the spread of fire for a designated amount of time, usually in hours.
Compartmentation is effective only when the walls and floors or ceilings are designed and maintained to keep the integrity of the original rating. But penetrating a fire-rated compartment floor or wall, while compromising the barrier’s original rating, is necessary to accommodate other facility components, such as cabling, piping and ductwork. Because managers cannot eliminate the need to make such penetrations, firestopping is critical to fire safety.
The International Firestop Council (IFC) defines firestopping as “a process whereby certain materials, some of them specially manufactured, are used to resist (or stop) the spread of fire and its by-products through openings made to accommodate penetrations in fire-rated walls, floors and floor/ceiling assemblies.” Firestopping is required for through-the-wall or -floor penetrations, blank openings, membrane penetrations, construction joints and perimeter fire barrier systems.
When penetrants pass through fire-resistive rated floor-ceiling assemblies and wall or partition assemblies, they must be sealed in an appropriate fashion to maintain fire-compartment integrity. Joints in or between fire-resistive assemblies also must be sealed to withstand the passage of fire, smoke and combustion by-products.
Firestop products work by filling the space around the items that are penetrating the rated wall or floor. Many different types of firestopping products are available. It is important to use the right type of product for the specific application.
- Intumescent products expand in volume when exposed to heat or flames exceeding a specified temperature.
- Endothermic products have a chemical reaction that allows materials to absorb heat.
- Ablative products use materials that provide fire resistance by gradually eroding to the flame front at a known and predictable rate.
- Heat-sink products absorb and dissipate heat.
- Mechanical products consist of manufactured elastomeric components and fit around penetrating items, such as cables and conduits.
- Non-intumescent materials do not expand in volume when exposed to heat or flames that exceed a specified temperature. Some of the more recognizable names for these products are sealants, caulks, putty, mortars, grouts, sprays, wraps, pillows, bags, blocks and mechanical devices.
Managers should look for firestop products that are approved by an accredited third-party testing agency and be sure firestop products are installed according to specifications. ASTM Standard E 814-94b rates firestop products using a strict standard. The International Building Code and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 5000 Building Construction and Safety Code require a builder to use only ASTM E 814 listed and tested firestop materials. The National Institute of Building Sciences gives instructional education for the proper installation of firestop systems.
Once fire barriers and firestopping are in place and installed according to code, it is important to ensure that the barriers’ integrity remains for their entire performance lives. Methods of ensuring this integrity beyond installation include education, barrier-management programs, and strict enforcement of applicable policies and procedures.
Education and training should be the top priority in ensuring the integrity of fire barriers beyond the original installation. Whether managers are planning to maintain fire barriers with an in-house maintenance crew or contracting out the process, it is imperative to use workers trained in firestop installation. Managers can take advantage of many manufacturer-sponsored educational programs specifically developed to provide the necessary training to install firestop systems correctly. Often, these programs are available for free or a small fee.
A good barrier-management program can eliminate firestopping mistakes, costly design changes, the use of non-tested products, and job delays.
Some manufacturers offer different levels of barrier management, which can include standardization of products, documentation, fire and water protection, training, recommendations of reputable installers, coordination meetings and facility owner maintenance manuals. Managers also can create an in-house barrier-management program by establishing requirements and processes for creating and maintaining fire barriers.
Written and enforced policies and procedures can establish firm guidelines for contractors and others who might need to penetrate fire barriers. Managers should consider policies and procedures that incorporate a process for contractors or others to check in and receive a permit before penetrating fire-rated assemblies.
Finally, managers should incorporate a process for inspecting the work to ensure that penetrations are properly sealed and consequences are spelled out for those who do not follow set procedures.
Barbara Pankoski, CHFM, CHSP, CERT, is a regulatory compliance consultant for the compliance and facilities management division of Smith Seckman Reid Inc. — www.ssr-inc.com — an engineering design and facility consulting firm. She brings 14 years of experience in health care, life safety, and environment of care.
When choosing a firestop system, the International Firestop Council (IFC) recommends managers find answers to these questions:
— Barbara Pankoski