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Strategic Fire Protection

Sep 3, 2007
The introduction of conventional fire doors and partitions can have a disastrous affect on a building's character and historic interest. Risk assessment and the development of a strategic approach to fire safety measures can lead to more sympathetic solutions.

While modern buildings are designed from the outset to allow the occupants to leave quickly and easily in the event of a fire, adapting an historic building is more difficult. Two primary factors must be considered: the protection of persons either living, working or visiting the premises; and the protection of the building fabric and its contents. If the building concerned is also open to the visiting public, the requirement for life safety measures is even greater.

The relative priorities for life safety and property protection will be viewed differently by those involved in the specification or definition of requirements. The fire authorities or the local fire brigade will be primarily concerned with ensuring that optimum standards are achieved for the provision of means of escape and for the inclusion of means for fighting fire. Conservationists on the other hand are primarily concerned with preserving the building fabric without the intrusive effects and loss of fabric that are the inevitable consequences of most standard fire precaution measures.

The building owner or occupier is therefore left in somewhat of a dilemma. What are the legal requirements? What life safety standards should be considered for the current and future usage and occupancy? What provisions should be made to protect the building and its contents against the ravages of fire? What are the risks?

These questions cannot be easily answered. The only requirement in law concerns the provision for life safety and adequate means for escape, not the protection of property.

Fire safety design standards advocated by the current Building Regulations primarily apply to building work only. However they can affect existing buildings where 'material alterations' are proposed that will effectively downgrade existing provisions covered by the regulations, such as means of escape, fire spread and access by the fire services. They also apply where there is a 'material change of use' including conversions to form an hotel, a public building or a dwelling, and the subdivision of a building to form a flat. The Regulations are a relatively recent development responding to modern building techniques and materials. Older buildings may have been constructed with provision for very different methods of transferring air, heat and light around a structure, often in the form of ducts and shafts. With the introduction of more modern building services, the original structure may well have been built over or adapted, creating voids. Recent history has shown, as with the fires at Hampton Court Palace and Windsor Palace, that such voids can contribute to the propagation and rapid spread of fire.

Recent years have seen rapid developments in our understanding of the nature and science of fire. As with any other facet of building development, the specifier no longer needs to rely solely on the prescribed standards for design: a specific tailored solution can be derived to take full advantage of existing features.

Fire precaution issues can be broadly broken down into two very specific categories: 'passive' protection measures which rely on physical barriers to restrict the development or spread of fire; and 'active' fire protection measures including, for example, fire detector and extinguisher systems.
About the Author
Freddy has been a regular author on topics concerning business fire safety consultancy. Specialising in the practical application of the fire safety risk assessment process with 17 years experience as an operational fire safety officer.
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