Fire Protection, What Does it Mean?

by Jason Miller

The building and construction industry commonly uses the term fire protection to describe the design and installation of wet pipe sprinkler systems. However, fire protection encompasses a much broader range of systems and elements within a building. The study, application and design of fire protection systems includes active systems such as fire detection, alarm and sprinkler systems as well as passive systems such as fire rated barriers and separation of occupancies.

Fire Protection Engineers use the application of science and engineering principals to design systems that protect the building and its occupants from the effects of fire and smoke. The most common of these systems include wet pipe sprinkler systems, detection systems and notification systems that work together to limit the spread of fire from its origin, notify the occupants of an emergency and maintain a tenable environment for the time required to egress. Other important components of a building’s construction that work holistically with the systems commonly thought of as fire protection include the use of fire barriers to separate occupancies and protect exit paths; the design and layout of the egress system to ensure adequate capacity and availability; the type of construction to limit the spread of fire and smoke; and general space planning of the building including separation from adjacent structures and exterior fire department access.

By evaluating the risks of the use and occupancy of a building, a fire protection engineer develops solutions to both common and unique design challenges to meet the property protection and life safety goals of the building. Unfortunately, the building and construction industry does not fully recognize that the risk analysis of a building includes more than simply meeting the prescriptive code requirements and that a multitude of systems are interconnected to for the overall fire protection scheme for a building. This often results in scope gaps during the design phase of a project of schedule delays during construction.

To ensure the successful design and construction of a project, it is important to consider the definition of the term fire protection and how it applies to the combined systems and construction features within a building. Understanding the individual and interrelated components of a fire protection system allows the roles and responsibilities of the design and construction team to be clearly defined.

The following paragraphs explore common individual elements of fire protection systems, providing descriptions and describing interrelated systems and components that are often overlooked.

Passive Fire Protection Systems: These systems include fire walls, fire barriers and associated protection of openings and penetrations. Defining the requirements of the passive systems requires an analysis of the allowable construction type, use and occupancy classification and location on property. The sprinkler system, fire alarm system, smoke control system, mechanical HVAC systems and egress system must be closely coordinated with the passive fire walls and fire barriers.

Sprinkler Systems: Often called a “fire protection” system, a sprinkler system includes many elements that must be considered as part of the design. Sprinkler systems can include wet pipe, dry pipe, pre-action and deluge systems. The operation of the systems requires an adequate water supply, may include a fire pump and will include some type of interface to a fire alarm system. The design of a sprinkler system must include an analysis of the water supply at the site. The results of that analysis may show that a fire pump is required to provide adequate flow and pressure. To properly design a sprinkler system, all the interrelated systems must be considered. This requires coordination between multiple disciplines within the design team.

Suppression System: This term is used interchangeably with “sprinkler” or “fire protection” but is more appropriately applied to gaseous or chemical suppression systems such as those found in kitchen hood systems or computer rooms. Suppression systems require coordination with the sprinkler system, fire alarm system and may be interfaced to mechanical HVAC systems or require coordination with fire barriers.

Fire Alarm System: The fire alarm system is an integral component of the overall fire protection system within a building as it provides the warning for the occupants to evacuate. The design of the fire alarm system is coordinated with fire walls and barriers, the sprinkler system, mechanical HVAC systems, elevator equipment and may be interfaced with auxiliary systems such as access control, sound and public address systems. The specification and design of a fire alarm system does not inherently include required Carbon Monoxide, Two Way Communication or Radio Amplification Systems.

Performance Based Design: This is arguably one of the most loosely defined terms used in the building and construction industry. Performance based design may include the use of fire modeling, human behavior and egress modeling or engineering calculations to develop a fire protection solution to meet a challenging or unique design problem or it can simply mean to narratively define the goals of a fire protection system to be used in a detailed design. When using a performance based design approach, either in a complex application or to simply specify a system, it is imperative to define the roles and responsibilities the parties involved.

There a many more aspects of a fire protection system that are not discussed in this article, but with an understanding of the most common components of a fire protection system one can properly define and coordinate the associated scope of work during the design and construction phases of a project. Our Fire Protection Engineers are available to discuss how BCER can assist your team with their fire protection needs on your project.