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What Firefighters Can Tell Us About Resilience

What most fire officials and firefighters already know--and what common sense should tell us--is finally getting some recognition by code officials and the building community:

The structure of a building determines how well it will perform in a fire.

Cheers to Waterloo Fire and Rescue and the Canadian concrete block industry for getting the word out.

An article on Structural Engineer magazine's website tells the tale of two fires in Ontario: A fatal retirement home fire in Orillia and a fire in Waterloo College Hall.

The performance of the buildings caused the Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association (CCMPA) to question Ontario's building codes and whether or not they are doing enough to protect citizens. According to the Structural Engineer report:

"It's worth noting that in the construction of Waterloo College Hall, concrete block had been used not only in the separating walls between each two-bedroom unit but also in the shared bedroom walls within the units themselves.

"According to Waterloo Fire Rescue, the block walls--in addition to the concrete slab flooring--were a critical factor in the containment of a fire that, while tragic, could have been even worse.

"Waterloo College Hall is perhaps a good example of the 'balanced design' approach to fire safety in building construction. It's an approach that relies on four complementary fire-safety systems: 

  • a detection system to warn occupants of a fire
  • an automatic suppression system
  • education and training
  • a containment system (concrete block) to limit the extent of fire, smoke and structural failure"

Detection and suppression--fire alarms, smoke detectors, and sprinkler systems--are well-established and effective means of fire protection.

But containment with noncombustible concrete walls and floors seems to be losing ground. In fact, it gets traded away to pay for detection and suppression.

The trend in the United States, notably since the 1970s, has been toward least initial cost to builders and developers, which translates into the design and construction of buildings to the minimum levels permissible by code. That is, the cheapest buildings allowed by law.


As fire detection and suppression systems add to the initial cost, builders and developers are likely to seek savings elsewhere.

And one target is fire containment with noncombustible building materials.

By containing a fire, you minimize its damage and essentially buy more time until it can be extinguished.

Concludes the article: "Concrete masonry can't prevent fire, but it is the best way we have to contain and maintain its structural integrity, to help increase our chances of survival."




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