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Fire. Mesmerizing to watch in the backyard, safely contained in a fire pit, terrifying to witness as it burns unchecked throughout a building. Fire has been a constant throughout civilization’s history as a helper and a hindrance. With each experience came more knowledge of how to safely interact with it and later, how to keep people and structures safe from it, prompting the formation of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in 1896 to create codes and standards for fire protection systems in buildings.
NFPA has developed more than 300 fire codes and standards intended to minimize the possibility and effects of fire and other risks. These codes and standards focus on making buildings safer, from the building materials on the exterior and interior to the building and product finishes used throughout. The type of building construction (new, residential, or commercial) also comes into play in NFPA’s codes and standards.
We’ve talked about who creates the codes and standards and a little bit about why they’re necessary. Now let’s dig into the distinctions between the two and why they’re important.
While the NFPA codes and standards are a great set of guidelines to protect occupants and buildings, they are not actual laws. However, the fire codes and standards from NFPA and the International Code Council (ICC) can be enforced by governing agencies and/or the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). Following the fire codes and standards set forth by these agencies is a smart decision shepherded by a strong moral compass and recommendations from the standards council and technical committees at NFPA. Choosing fire door solutions that meet NFPA’s codes and standards protect the people in your buildings, your buildings themselves, and your reputation and liability.
A code tells you what you need to do and a standard tells you how to do it. NFPA defines them as: “a code is a set of rules that knowledgeable people recommend for others to follow. It is not a law, but can be adopted into law. A standard tends to be a more detailed elaboration, the nuts and bolts of meeting a code."
Occupancy Load and Maximum Occupancy
Occupancy load refers to the number of people permitted in a building at one time based on the building’s floor space and function. It also refers to the number of people permitted in a building based on the means of egress.
Maximum occupancy refers to the maximum number of people permitted in a room measured per foot.
Both are especially important to take note of in your buildings in everyday life, so in the event of a fire, as many lives can be saved as possible.
Types of Construction, Buildings, and Materials
As mentioned above, fire codes and standards vary depending on the type of construction: new, residential, or commercial. A residential building wouldn’t need to have space and meet codes for hundreds of people, and a commercial building doesn’t have to contend with some of the codes and standards required for housing in residential buildings.
The type of building, its design and structure, and its materials come into play here as well. Codes and standards can be developed specifically for a building type or the material used to construct one. Each building will have minimum standards, codes, and time limits in regard to its classifications. Building materials also have their own set of codes and standards along with hourly ratings.
Sometimes, a building or one of its components may be so unique it isn’t covered in NFPA or the ICC fire codes and standards. When this is the case, it is up to the AHJ to evaluate the circumstance and decide if it meets the typical intent of the other fire codes and standards.
Separation and Spacing for Fire and Smoke Suppression and Prevention
Fire codes and standards not only cover building processes and product installations, but also how materials are arranged and designed. There are specific requirements for spacing and separation of a building’s rooms and also for spacing between one building to another. These codes and standards pertain to NFPA’s fire prevention codes, which evaluate and provide guidelines for equipment, materials, and safety solutions manufactured to suppress and prevent fires and the smoke that accompanies them.
As with all of NFPA’s fire codes, they are revised every three to five years to remain current. This means that your building, its materials, and other processes should also be evaluated and updated to stay up to date with NFPA’s recommendations.
Sprinklers are an obvious fire prevention solution that have been around since 1723, when Ambrose Godfrey invented the first automated sprinkler using gunpowder. It was later improved by Philip Pratt and Henry S. Parmalee, without the use of gunpowder and with the addition of sprinkler heads. Frederick Grinnell took it one step further and created the first-ever sprinkler system in 1881. Other fire prevention systems you’ve encountered before are smoke detectors and wall pull fire alarms. But what about more advanced, updated solutions such as fire-rated doors?
Fire-rated doors (and counter shutters) are barriers designed to prevent flames or hazardous smoke from spreading during a fire. Their ratings can range from withstanding fire from 45 minutes up to four hours, depending on the manufacturer.
Fire-rated doors help ensure life safety because of their ability to trap smoke and fire along a path of egress. While fire-rated products cannot be used in the main path of egress, using them to help guide people along the egress route during a fire is acceptable. Just like with other rolling doors and products, fire-rated doors and counter shutters must be tested annually. Records from this testing must also be kept for at least three years or until a product is upgraded or replaced. If records aren’t kept of the testing, insurance claims may be voided and the litigation flood gates opened wide due to building owner negligence.
Just as sprinklers were invented and refined over the years, fire-rated doors have received their own polish and upgrades as well. Products such as insulated rolling fire doors, counter fire doors, and even elevator smoke curtains have been manufactured to increase life safety and protect buildings.
When seconds count, you don’t want to be concerned about your fire doors activating or anyone having to manually cycle doors. Fire-rated doors can be cycled through thermal activation, electronic detection, or fail-safe systems. Thermally activated doors often use fusible links, which release fire closures when met with temperatures at or above 165 degrees. However, fusible links are not foolproof, as they only react to heat and not smoke. With smoke inhalation responsible for up to 80% of fire deaths, having doors that only activate when the temperature is hot enough without regard to smoke is dangerous. Electronic detection systems and operators that close doors in response to an alarm system, smoke detectors, or power outage are a better, safer option that can save lives, keeping smoke and fire away from building occupants and structures. This option also makes resetting the doors easier after a fire event.
Fire-rated door testing has also progressed over the years to make sure the installed doors are up to task. Annual testing can help lower insurance costs and identify door issues that may not have been found otherwise. This also means that fire door testing can help you and your building where it matters most: routinely. If a fire event does occur, you know your occupants and building will be safer.
While some of these updated products can be more of an investment up front, the overall lifetime cost of installing a fire-rated product can be lower than replacing a non-fire-rated door repeatedly.
Fire doors cannot be “grandfathered” into any updated fire codes or standards. The NFPA updates their codes and standards through a rigorous process every three to five years. It includes a standards council, technical committees, and a voting process that works towards consensus that balances risks and costs. If fire doors were able to be grandfathered in and bypass the work the NFPA and ICC do to keep the public and its buildings safe, it would all be for naught, with more lives and buildings lost to fires.
Keeping your building up to date with the recommended fire codes and standards is the responsible thing to do and is easier than ever. With manufacturers that create doors with new technology and even safer options and inspectors to help guide the process after installation, updating your fire-rated products after a change in fire codes can be a process that helps save lives.Have a question about fire-rated doors, a fire-rated product, or their installation or operation? We can help! Contact us at 800.233.8366.
Cornell is the industry leader for rolling door, security grille and closure product experts since 1828. To inquire how Cornell's long history of innovation and customer service can help you with your next rolling door project, call 1-800-233-8366!