“No one wants a fire to break out and prevention measures are key. But if it did happen, what protection is in place to stop it spreading? You’re likely to be familiar with active fire protection systems; they take the form of either fire detector equipment like alarms or fire suppressants such as extinguishers. But what about passive fire protection systems?

What is passive fire protection?

Despite being called passive, this type of fire protection is actually constantly protecting you as it never needs to be activated. That’s because passive fire protection’s part of the building itself and is manifested in several different ways including fire resistant walls, doors and floors. It’s bespoke to every building and takes into account the building construction, layout, purpose and the people within it.

Passive fire protection isn’t there to extinguish the fire. Its role is to contain it and to stop the blaze spreading further, or slow down its progress, while preventing building collapse. Compartmentation plays an essential part in doing that.

The role of compartmentation

The basic principle is to make every room or section of the building a sealed unit to contain the fire. Barriers such as fire-rated walls, partitions, floors and ceilings as well as doors and smoke barriers can be used. They’re rigorously tested under extreme fire conditions to make sure they can perform their protective role against the required criteria. These kinds of barriers are used both in visible areas as well as in concealed spaces like ceiling voids. The main focus is on protecting life so you’ll find compartmentation around many stairways to ensure a means of escape is always available. The larger or more complex the building, the more passive fire protection will be built in – even if it’s not immediately obvious.

Not necessarily out of sight but probably out of mind…

By its very nature this kind of protection is part of the fabric of the building. That makes it less obvious. That in turn makes it very easy to forget about. And that creates a problem when it comes to maintenance.

While active fire protection equipment is more likely to be maintained regularly, do you give the same kind of priority to your passive protection? Let’s say, for example, there’s obvious damage to one of your fire extinguishers. We bet you’d sort it out quickly because you know you’re not protected. And you’d be quite right to do that.

But what about that hole in the ceiling of your office? It needs addressing at some point but it’s only cosmetic …isn’t it?

Well, no, because that could be a key part of fire protection through compartmentation; if a fire breaks out, the sealed unit effect is compromised and the fire can take hold and spread more quickly. The same holds true for holes in walls. Or roof fire breaks or cavity barriers that haven’t been replaced in hidden-away places like roof voids. Or gaps in seals around fire doors. And so on. They’re all likely to be breaches of compartmentalisation and if a fire occurs you no longer have containment. And that can be absolutely devastating – whatever the building.

Another issue arises when buildings change due to refurbishment. That can mean compartmentation that was previously appropriate is now compromised. While you’ll need a rethink of your active fire protection in the new layout, the passive systems must be addressed as well.

If you need convincing further just reflect on these statistics quoted by BICSI, the worldwide association for cabling design and installation professionals, for a moment. Approximately 57% of people killed in fires are not in the room where the fire originated. Three quarters of all deaths are caused by smoke inhalation. Smoke can travel between 120 to 420 feet per minute under fire conditions. The message is clear. Compartmentation saves lives; neglecting to maintain passive fire protection costs lives.

Could you benefit from further advice about passive fire protection and compartmentation issues? If so consider speaking to Mike Lewis from our partner business LMS. He’ll arrange for a free survey of your premises and give you guidance about where you’re vulnerable.

Active and passive fire protection systems are not alternative options. They’re complementary and both must be made priorities during fire risk assessments and on an ongoing basis in terms of maintenance. So don’t let that hole in the ceiling become one of those issues you’ll get fixed when you ‘get a chance’.