12/04/2006

Past, Present, & Future: Life/Fire Safety

There has been a switch from using prescriptive-based codes to performance-based codes

 

The Foundations of Modern Life Safety

The concept of fire protection goes back to early civilization, although the surge of technological developments that laid the groundwork for modern fire-protection and life-safety systems took root at least 200 years ago. These landmark inventions have been under constant revision and refinement ever since:

* 1806 - Englishman John Carey devised the first automatic arrangement for carrying water through a pipe system.

* 1852 - James Bichens Francis installs a perforated pipe system in the Plant of Proprietors of the Locks and Canals on the Merrimack River in Lowell, MA.

* 1864 - Major A. Steward Harrison of the First Engineer London Volunteers devises an early version of the sprinkler head, but never files for a patent.

* 1872 - The U.S. Patent Office issues the first patent for a sprinkler system to Philip W. Pratt of Abington, MA. The system operated through a valve to which cords and fuses were attached. When the cords and fuses melted, the valve opened, releasing a stream of water.

* 1874 - Henry S. Parmelee of New Haven, CT, obtains a patent for a sprinkler head. This perforated head contained a valve that was held closed against water pressure by a heavy spring made of low-fusing material.

* 1880s-1890s - A host of inventors continue to refine the sprinkler. Archival material uncovered by the NFPA reveals a litany of designs.

SOURCE: NATIONAL FIRE PROTECTION ASSOCIATION

For centuries, nothing has shaped the ever-evolving path of life-safety and fire-protection codes and systems more than a tragic fire. In their aftermath, investigations reveal what went wrong and what could have been done to prevent the blazes. Ultimately, codes change - so do system design and components. “There has been a change from using prescriptive-based codes to performance-based codes," notes Chris Jelenewicz, engineering program manager for the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, Bethesda, MD.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in Quincy, MA, performance-based fire-protection design differs from traditional, prescriptive approaches in several ways.

Designers bypass the traditional "recipe and list of ingredients" with which to develop a fire-protection system. Instead, they focus on goals and objectives to obtain those targets, such as maintaining the smoke level above the heads of people evacuating the building. "A performance-based code identifies the level of life safety without determining how you do it, and requires more engineering effort," Jelenewicz says.

The birth of such an approach has been a long and steady evolution - and one often driven by tragedy. Over the years, major loss-of-life fires in commercial and industrial facilities have helped shape the evolution of fire and life-safety codes and the related protection systems.

Consider the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory fire in New York City. Near closing time on March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building. One-hundred-forty-six garment workers died in the fire.

That fire gave root to what has become the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code®, according to Gary Keith, vice president for regional operations at NFPA. “It resulted in us forming a new committee - the Safety to Life Committee (1913)," Keith says. "That resulted in the creation of the NFPA Building Exits Code, which has morphed into today's Life Safety Code."

In 1921, the Safety to Life Committee expanded; the publication it generated in 1927 became known as the Building Exits Code. New editions were published in 1929, 1934, 1936, 1938, 1942, and 1946. But, jurisdictions didn't rapidly adopt the code and put it to practical use. A tragic nightclub fire in Boston is a case in point. On Nov. 28, 1942, a fire in the city's Cocoanut Grove nightclub killed 492 people and injured 166. Still ranking as the nation's deadliest nightclub fire, the Cocoanut Grove incident brought to light the issues of overcrowding, combustible interior finishes, and, again, egress.

After the Cocoanut Grove fire, Keith says that more jurisdictions began considering the adoption of the Life Safety Code, still known then as the Building Exits Code. The sheer number of fatalities in the fire drove home the point that stronger code adoption was needed and put the Building Exits Code under consideration as a tool for legal enforcement.

Because of this, NFPA re-edited the code. Revisions appeared between 1948 and 1952. Editions published between 1957 and 1963 moved the code along to its modern incarnation.

Other notable fires over the years have continued to shape the modern Life Safety Code, including a 1958 fire at Chicago's Our Lady of the Angel "landmark" fires have helped re-shape the way codes are developed, revised, and applied in both new and existing buildings.

“Codes are somewhat reactionary; that'sthe way they are and probably always will be. The goal is to have all buildings built with sprinklers. It's a major line of defense in protecting your building," Keith says.

Robin Suttell, based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.

 


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Visit our website today to learn about the design flexibility of a Morton building and the endless possibilities of partnering with our designBUILD team.


Wood construction is both cost and energy efficient. Check out Morton Buildings and our designBUILD team online today to discover all the benefits of post-frame construction.


When choosing a metal-clad building for your next construction project, consider Morton Buildings, Inc., and their designBUILD team, we’ll make your dream a reality.

Bluebeam® Revu® simplifies digital facilities document management from design review to leveraging as-builts, maintenance manuals and O&Ms submittals.

We Can Help You Reduce Energy by 30%

Our mission is to help our customers manage their buildings' energy costs, improve reliability, and enhance performance while having a positive impact on the environment.
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