Fire protection features, such as: fire alarm systems, sprinkler systems, fire doors, portable extinguishers, etc., installed in a building are installed with the hope that they never have to perform the functions for which they are intended. Those functions are mainly to detect and alarm, control, and suppress, unintended fires.
Typical building services such as plumbing systems, heating and ventilation systems, and electrical systems, are constantly in use. If something is not working on those systems, such as a toilet not flushing, a space being cold, or lights not working, the building occupants will notice and the deficiency gets corrected. Not so with fire protection features. They sit dormant for long periods of time just waiting for a fire to occur and are then expected to perform as intended when a fire happens.
To help provide reasonable assurance that fire protection features will perform their intended functions when necessary when designing the features, three simple assessments should be performed:
- Is it appropriate?
- Is it effective?
- Is it reliable?
Appropriateness – This is an evaluation by the fire safety analyst to confirm that the fire protection feature is appropriate for the fire hazard present. For fire detection, this is based on the technical literature to confirm that the detection method was capable of detecting the expected fire signature(s). For example, smoke detection is not appropriate for fires that are expected to involve hydrogen as the fuel as hydrogen burns clean and would not produce smoke particles that would be detected by typical smoke detection. For fire suppressions systems, it may not be appropriate to use a wet automatic sprinkler system to protect high-value or high-importance electrical equipment due to the potential for water damage. However, wet sprinklers are considered appropriate for most occupancies.
Effectiveness – This is an evaluation as to whether the protection system design and installation met the requirements of applicable fire protection standards. For automatic sprinkler protection to be considered effective it must be designed and installed in accordance with the requirements of NFPA 13 – Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems. For fire alarm systems, does the system conform to the requirements of CAN/ULC S524 – , and the provincial building codes in Canada, or NFPA 72 – National Fire Alarm and Signalling Code in the USA and other countries. Fire separations and firewalls the requirements are specified in the applicable building codes.
Reliability – This is an evaluation of fire protection system components to confirm appropriate listing, and system arrangement for conformance to applicable standards. To obtain a listing, fire protection system components such as sprinklers, valves, heat detectors, fire alarm panels, fire pumps, fire doors, exit hardware, etc. etc. undergo rigorous testing so the components have a high degree of durability, compatibility with other components, and reliability when inactive for long periods of time.
However, regardless of how appropriate the fire protection is expected to be, how well it was designed and installed, and the fact that all the components are listed for the appropriate service, once in use, fire protection features require periodic inspection testing and maintenance to maintain a high probability that they will function as required when needed. But that is the subject for another blog.