Take action with passive fire protection
Passive fire protection strategy is an ongoing process. Here are the key areas to pay attention to in order to ensure fire-prevention measures meet industry standards.
Passive fire protection (PFP) uses a building’s structure to limit the spread of fire and is integral to protecting people and property. Although it is mandated by the Building Code of Australia and Australian Standards, PFP can be easily and accidentally compromised by everyday changes within a building.
Buildings operate in a constant state of flux. If routine or minor works, such as the drilling of holes to allow for cabling or the addition of shelves, are not managed properly, building managers may be putting occupants and assets at a higher risk in the event of a fire. It is imperative that facility and strata managers take action to implement and maintain robust PFP procedures and equipment.
Unlike active fire protection, which uses equipment such as sprinklers and smoke detection systems to detect and suppress fire, PFP relates to the design and management of structural components of a building to contain and slow the spread of fire.
PFP is underpinned by the concept of compartmentalisation, which refers to the division of space within a building into individual fire compartments. This division reduces the amount of fuel a fire can access, helping to limit the fire to a size that is manageable for the attending fire brigade.
Each compartment is contained by fire-rated doors, walls and ceilings, creating barriers that help to limit the spread of fire and smoke between floors, adjoining compartments and buildings. Breaches in the barriers are overcome with fire protection solutions such as fire doors, fire shutters, the use of fire stopping material to seal holes and fire dampers in ducts.
The way a building is compartmentalised varies depending on its age, class and number of storeys. High-risk areas, such as electrical switch and lift motor rooms, are typically compartmentalised. Multistorey buildings may be compartmentalised vertically and horizontally, so each floor is a separate compartment.
Limiting the spread of fire and smoke to a building can help to reduce damage and risk to its occupants, as well as allow them valuable extra time to evacuate safely. It can also assist the fire brigade to better identify and target the seat of the fire for a faster and more accurate response.
PFP is mandated by the Building Code of Australia, which states that “any building element provided to resist the spread of fire must be protected, to the degree necessary, so that an adequate level of performance is maintained (a) where openings, construction joints and the like occur; and (b) where penetrations occur for building services”.
Maintaining the integrity of fire compartments
PFP is not a ‘set and forget’ fire safety strategy. Ongoing management of PFP is essential to help maintain the integrity of fire compartments.
Identifying and documenting where fire compartments are located is essential. All penetrations and fire-rated walls (and their fire resistance level) should be clearly identified in a building’s PFP register. This is known as baseline data. Australian Standard 1851-2012 Routine servicing of fire protection systems and equipment requires the upkeep of a PFP register as well as regular inspection of sealed penetrations to ensure their integrity is intact and identify any unprotected penetrations. This requires accurate records of fire-rated walls and penetrations.
If building managers are unsure which walls are fire-rated, they are encouraged to promptly seek accurate information and records. Fire-rated walls can be identified in the building plans or building approval documentation. If facility managers are unable to access this information, a fire protection specialist can identify fire-rated walls and assess the suitability of existing PFP measures.
It is advised that PFP measures are inspected annually, as per AS1851-2012, as this can help manage any fire safety breaches that may result from everyday works within the building.
As part of maintaining PFP measures, building managers should establish a procedure for any works that may impact fire-rated walls. This may include establishing guidelines for or imposing contractual obligations on tradespeople or building services that may penetrate fire-rated walls (for example, electrical contractors, plumbers or security camera installers).
Procedural guidelines may also stipulate the engagement of PFP specialists to fill in penetrations by using or applying the appropriate and accredited products once the work is complete. There are a number of products and materials that can be used, including fillers, fire pillows and fire collars. These products vary in their fire resistance level and are very specific to their application. It is important to ensure all materials and methods of application are compliant with the Building Code of Australia.
The author Tony Jones is regional operations manager at Wormald – a leading provider of fire protection solutions, offering a comprehensive range of services including engineering advice, inspection and testing services for passive and active fire protection solutions.