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Fire safety for commercial buildings

Fire safety in commercial spaces is crucial and highly regulated. Fire can have a devastating impact on a business, affecting retail operations and sales for a long period of time especially when shop fittings, equipment and stock are damaged. For retailers of all sizes, even a small fire can result in lengthy downtime while insurance claims are assessed and repairs take place.

Designing and building structures in compliance with the NCC contributes to the reduction of fire losses.

What are the complexities of fire safety design?

When developing a fire safety design, architects, designers, engineers, builders and other stakeholders need to have a thorough and current understanding of the NCC requirements and critical factors.

The following factors play a important role in determining a compliant fire safety design:

  • the function or use of the building, 
  • relevant fire hazards, 
  • the height of the building, 
  • floor areas, 
  • evacuation time, 
  • fire load, 
  • potential fire intensity, 
  • active fire systems, 
  • occupant characteristics (e.g. mobility), 
  • travel distances, 
  • fire safety systems, 
  • fire brigade intervention, 
  • proximity to other properties, 
  • exits location (below or above ground).

What is Fire Safety?

Fire safety is the set of practices and measures intended to reduce the destruction caused by fire.

Designing fire safety in commercial buildings is complex and should include fire protection, prevention, and suppression systems. These are all fundamental to safeguarding a building from fire and work together to keep both buildings and people safe.

Key components of fire protection:

Fire protection systems aim to protect the building’s occupants, allowing for a safe evacuation of the premises and minimise the effects of fire on the structure, reducing potential assets loss and repair costs.

Fire protection systems can be divided into 2 categories, active or passive fire protection.

Active fire protection systems are designed to help fight fires and might require human intervention in order to work in the event of a fire. This is a reactive approach to extinguishing a fire using systems such as fire extinguishers, sprinklers, smoke and fire alarms, hoses, hydrants and emergency services (emergency exit signs and lighting).

Conversely, passive fire protection systems are designed to contain fires, prevent or slow the spread of fire, heat and smoke and maintain the building’s structural integrity.

The 3 pillars of passive fire protection are fire compartmentation, fire stopping systems, and structural protection.

  • Compartmentation is the process of dividing large spaces within a building into smaller spaces. While the fire is contained in a closed compartment, people can safely evacuate the premises and firefighters can extinguish the fire. Compartmentation using fire rated walls, floors and ceilings as well as fire doors is, therefore, one of the key elements in passive fire protection. 
  • Service penetrations and all openings in walls and ceilings must be sealed to prevent the fire from spreading through the building. Fire stopping materials to seal service penetrations of the building such as fire pillows, fire batts, fire mortar, fire mastic, fire collars and other fire sealant products are also essential to a complete passive fire protection plan.
  • Once a building is on fire, the load bearing structure can deteriorate and collapse. Protecting the structural adequacy of a building is essential, it enables enough time for the safe evacuation of the building’s occupants, whilst also preventing collapse of the structure. Fire protection of structural elements can be achieved using intumescent paint, spray coatings (vermiculite spray) or fire rated boards systems.

 

What is fire prevention?

Fire prevention refers to the measures put in place so a building’s fire load is as low as it can possibly be, it is about proactively identifying and removing any potential source of fire ignition.  Fire prevention systems aim to minimise potential fire hazards and reduce the likelihood of a serious fire.

Protection plan to prevent commercial property fires:

  • Conduct a comprehensive fire risk assessment to identify and understand the potential risks (reduce fire hazards). There are a number of ways fires can start inside commercial properties, including electrical issues, poorly maintained machinery, careless cooking, unsupervised candle use, cigarette smoking, and improper storage of flammable and combustible materials. Educating building occupants on proper fire prevention methods is key.
  • Organise a routine inspection of the premises and ensure regular maintenance of the fire protection systems (alarms, sprinklers, emergency exit signs and lighting) and firefighting equipment (fire extinguishers, fire blankets and hose reels).  In Australia, the relevant standard is AS 1851.
  • Implement fire emergency procedures and ensure a fire safety plan is clearly displayed at every floor, in multiple areas. The plan should include clear and easy to understand escape routes, occupant or tenant accountability measures, an emergency response plan, and a safety point person.
     
  • Facility managers and employees or tenants must be trained to use the installed equipment and know exactly what to do when the alarm sounds. Fire safety training can help ensure that employees are aware of the building’s emergency management and evacuation plan and avoid panic in case of a fire.

Fire suppression systems:

Fire suppression is the final measure put in place to prevent and fight the spread of fire. There are different types of systems with all the same objectives: detecting and extinguishing a fire as quickly as possible.

The systems usually include built-in components that detect fires and may combine different substances to suppress fires based on the environment the system is designed to protect. Common examples include carbon dioxide and inert gas, water and foam solutions as well as a range of both liquid and dry chemical agents. Suppression systems offer a wider range of protection levels than traditional fire sprinkler systems.

 

Publicly accessible buildings must be safe for everyone to use and the design should take fire safety into account before anything else. A combination of fire prevention, fire protection and fire suppression systems is essential to a dependable fire safety strategy.

Progressive Materials are experts in passive fire protection and the exclusive supplier of Promat products in WA.  If you are looking for advice on Fire Protection for commercial buildings, contact one of our technical consultants.


15 Mar 2022