Active and passive fire protection: a balancing act

Sometimes knowledge and understanding of industry specific terms, applications and purpose are presumed, so here Harrison Spencer goes back to basics with regards to fire protection methods, explaining the differences between active and passive fire protection, and the importance of balance for the safety of a building. 

Fire protection is imperative to the safety of a home or workplace, the impact of improper safety measures can have devastating consequences. Both active fire protection and passive fire protection are integral to ensuring the safety of all commercial properties from office and retail buildings to train stations. While most people only consider the obvious fire safety tools such as an extinguisher or a smoke detector, they only play a very small role in the protection of buildings. There are numerous methods used in the construction and day to day operations of commercial buildings, these methods usually fall under ‘passive’ and ‘active’ fire protection.

For industries that need to pass regulations and standards for fire protection, the value of implementing and balancing both ‘active’ and ‘passive’ protection should not be undermined or overlooked. Through balancing the use of both methods buildings can ensure complete fire protection, to do this you must first know what sets them apart and what to consider with each when protecting a building.

What is passive fire protection? 

Passive fire protection methods are known as such because they operate without the need for human intervention or any external input overlaying commands. Crucial during the construction phase of a building, passive fire protection is integral to the safety of the structure of the building, encompassing the very fabric of the building they account for making walls, floors, ceilings, and doors fire resistant to name a few.

Subject to regulation and the specific requirements of the building type, passive fire protection plays a completely preventative role in fire protection, covering every aspect of protection during the construction phase, focusing on the following aspects:

  • Contain the spread of flames
  • Avoid the spread of fumes
  • Minimise the disaster area
  • Maintain the overall structural integrity of the building
  • Allow enough time for people to safely vacate the building

With these goals in mind, the main objective of a passive fire safety system is to allow time for building occupants to escape to safety with as little impact or damage caused in the process as possible. Through the construction of fire-resistant walls and floors, as well as the implementation of internal fire barriers the starting point of the fire or ‘disaster area’ can be contained, limiting any collateral damage and damage to infrastructure.

Other examples of passive fire protection include ‘dampers’ which stop smoke and flames from entering the internal structure of the building, limiting damage to occupants. Another example of passive protection is intumescent paint which aims to stop the spread of the fire. The most crucial component to consider when applying passive fire protection methods is allowing enough time to extinguish and stop the spread of the fire, allowing you to safely evacuate occupants and avoiding any collateral damage to the building and its contents.

Despite its name, passive fire protection should not be left unchecked or untested after it is correctly installed, regular maintenance should be carried out to ensure the safety of the building, its contents and occupants.

What is active fire protection?

Active fire protection encompasses all fire protection methods that need to be activated to function correctly. The action can come in different forms from manual actioning like with an extinguisher to automatic actioning like with a water sprinkling system. These systems are designed to combat a fire as it arises helping to alert occupants, maintain and overpower a fire to fully extinguish it.

A well maintained and regularly checked fire alarm system is crucial to the proper functioning of an active fire system. After a fire has started and the disaster area starts to fill up with fumes and flames, the alarm system will alert both occupants and the relevant fire department, it should also trigger sprinklers and activates fire exits. Thus a well-maintained fire alarm system is imperative in the success of an active fire system stopping a fire and minimising damage.

Active fire protection systems are vital in ensuring the safety of the building’s occupants through the use of systems that need human intervention to function, requiring a quick and immediate response. Products and systems that fall under active fire safety include:

  • Fire alarm systems – early detection is crucial to the welfare and safety of building occupants and well-maintained alarm systems are vital in alerting occupants.
  • Emergency escape lighting –  An example of an automatic active fire protection system, emergency lighting is used in the event of power failure, caused by electrical damage as a result of a fire.
  • Automatic Sprinkler systems – devices built into the ceilings of a building and contain water, mist, or foam.
  • Ventilation systems – some vents work continuously and could be seen as passive, however, there are proper smoke ventilation systems that work automatically in the event of a fire, and these are seen as active fire protection systems. Smoke ventilation allows smoke and fumes to escape from a building whilst keeping the air in corridors and stairways safe to breathe.
  • Fire hydrants– Typically used by local fire departments when access water from the underground mains supply to combat the fire.
  • Dry and wet risers – valves and pipework to enable the fire service to pump water onto specific floors of multi-story buildings.
  • PA systems – Otherwise known as a tannoy, this system broadcasts messages across different floors of the building alerting occupants of the evacuation procedure in the event of a fire.
  • Portable fire extinguishers –  fire extinguishers come in various types, usually changing due to the contents they contain from C02 to water, and foam. A purely manual device, operating a fire extinguisher usually requires a certain level of training.

Active fire protection can be separated into two separate areas fire detection and fire suppression, depending on the function of the specific product. For example, fire detectors aim to detect and alert building occupants of a fire and divert them from the disaster area to safety, whereas fire suppressants actively try to control the spread and diminish the fire, with the use of extinguishers and sprinkler systems.

Getting the balance right

Balancing both active and passive fire protection methods is crucial for protecting your premises, business assets, staff, and visitors. While active and passive fire protection systems do play different roles, they work together in unison, with each method making up for where the other lacks, with the end goal to prevent, contain, and extinguish fires, alongside assisting any emergency services.

This feature originally appeared in Security Middle East magazine.

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