Analyzing Fire Safety
by Andrew Bowman, P.E.
Many people believe the building they are in is safe from fire if it is equipped with code-required fire-protection systems. Unfortunately, while compliance with the building code does ensure a certain level of fire and life safety, code compliance is not a safety guarantee. Some conditions, like large atria or historic restorations, require fire protection schemes that are custom engineered.
Fire protection engineers apply a scientific understanding of the nature and characteristics of fire to a wide variety of practical buildings or processes. They can evaluate designs and propose fire protection and alarm systems that may be more effective than those prescribed by code.
Fire protection engineers necessarily work across disciplines. They design mechanically based systems such as automatic sprinklers. They design fire alarm systems based on sophisticated electrical circuitry. They specify the fire resistance necessary to protect structural components. And they are versed in the seemingly arcane fire-safety related architectural requirements that can often drive the layout of a building.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Most current building codes in the United States are "prescriptive." That is, they dictate precisely how a building should be built. The prescriptive approach is useful in that the requirements are generally clear and easily enforceable.
However, a prescriptive approach is not always workable in buildings with unique design features or unusual uses. Application of a prescriptive code in such cases may force unsatisfactory compromises in functionality, aesthetics, or cost.
Also, because building codes typically require several years to develop, they don't respond quickly to new technologies. The past few years have seen a new generation of fire-protection analysis tools that are difficult to apply in practice because they are not formally recognized by the prescriptive methods in the building code. >>>