We often define fire protection as safety features we encounter in any building. These features range from alarms and smoke detectors to fire extinguishers and doors. All of these are important to protecting both buildings and their inhabitants. However, they only form part of a whole system of preventative measures. All of these measures will belong to one of two categories – either active or passive fire protection. Not encountered these terms before? This article will explain the difference between active and passive fire protection, and how they ensure a building is safe in the event of a fire.
What is active fire protection?
The term ‘active fire protection’ can be used to describe many of the products and measures that the general public often associate with fire protection and fire safety. Active fire protection systems tend to be immediately visible in most buildings. Therefore, you may find it useful to think of these systems as having an ‘active’ presence.
Most active fire protection measures will fall into one of the following categories:
Detection: This category describes products that either detect heat, smoke and flames or alert a building’s occupants to the presence of a fire. Primary examples include smoke detectors and fire alarms.
Suppression: Fire suppression systems can either be activated or wielded by trained professionals to extinguish flames. Often using water, foam or inert gases, these can range from sprinkler systems to fire hoses and extinguishers. We explore these systems in further detail in our guide to fire suppression.
Ventilation and Evacuation: Many buildings will use products such as automatic vents and fans to help clear smoke from corridors and stairwells so that occupants and firefighters can safely exit a building. In addition to this, emergency escape lighting and intercom systems can be vital in aiding evacuation in the event of a fire. We will explore how passive fire protection helps to keep escape rooms clear further in this article.
A common trait shared by the above measures is that they all react to action or motion. Fire alarms, for instance, must be ‘activated’ to bring attention to a fire. Similarly, a fire extinguisher must be actively used to put out a fire. Finally, as previously mentioned, fire sprinkler systems are often automatically activated to suppress a fire.
What is passive fire protection?
According to Global Market Insights, the passive fire protection market is estimated to be worth $31 billion by 2026. The term ‘passive fire protection’ describes structural measures implemented to minimise the risk of fire damage. This level of risk includes occupants’ safety, and the financial and reputational losses stemming from building damage.
Passive fire protection systems work in various ways to reduce fire damage. These include dividing buildings into manageable spaces to limit the passage of flames and smoke (also known as compartmentation) and reinforcing load-bearing structural elements (e.g. columns, partitions and beams) so they can withstand fire damage for an extended period. This then opens up a vital window of time for a building to be safely evacuated.
Examples of passive fire protection measures
Once completed, a fire risk survey will culminate in a series of recommendations for a passive fire protection strategy. The exact nature of a passive fire protection strategy will vary based on the building itself, as well as any unique industry requirements. However, it will usually consist of one or several of the following measures:
Intumescent fireproofing involves adding a protective coating for structural steel, which is usually either spray applied (as an intumescent paint) or added as a thin film layer. This coating contains chemical properties which expand when exposed to high temperatures, forming an additional layer around steel beams, columns and other structural elements. This layer extends the length of time in which the steel can withstand high temperatures, without compromising its basic functionality. To find out more about CLM Fireproofing’s work in intumescent fireproofing, visit our dedicated page to structural fire protection.
As previously mentioned, compartmentation aims to contain fire and smoke to a specific area of a building. This helps to protect the building’s structural integrity and provide a clear path of escape. A compartmentation system can take on a variety of forms. For instance, contractors will erect specially designed barriers and partitions to contain fire and smoke. These barriers and partitions will often be made using specific fire-resistant materials.
For many, the main purpose of a fire door is to provide a clear means of escape. However, they are also a key element of a building’s compartmentation strategy. Fire doors are usually reinforced with either intumescent strips or a cold smoke seal, which offer additional fire resistance by preventing the passage of smoke. Therefore, we can consider fire doors to be a passive fire protection measure.
CLM Fireproofing are specialists in fire stopping and penetration sealing. This involves inspecting compartment walls and floors as well as joints, pipes and ducts for any non-compliant gaps or openings. Any potential breaches in compartments are then rectified using fire-resistant materials.
Sometimes, tradesmen can inadvertently compromise a fire-resistant structure. Whether it be electricians or plumbers, their work can create cavities in floors, ceilings, walls, or ventilation ducts. The smallest cavity might provide the opportunity for fire and smoke to spread, therefore the practice of filling these cavities can also be considered part of a fire stopping strategy. This should always be carried out by specialists to ensure adherence to industry standards. One of the reasons why fire stopping service penetrations are so critical to successful passive fire protection is because they can often be found in concealed spaces, meaning that without a thorough fire risk survey they may go unnoticed until the event of a fire.
What is the difference between active and passive fire protection?
To summarise, there are two main differences between active and passive fire protection. Firstly, while active fire protection systems detect and suppress flames, the purpose of passive fire protection is to inhibit the spread of fire throughout a building and reduce structural damage. Secondly, the term ‘passive’ can be used to define fire protection measures that do not require human intervention to work, following their initial installation. In comparison, an ‘active’ fire protection measure will often have to be triggered or handled by occupants or fire safety professionals to suppress fire.
Active and passive fire protection systems work independently of each other. However, they must both be maintained to the highest standards to be effective. Otherwise, in the event of a fire the ramifications can be devastating. We strongly advise all construction projects involve fire protection experts from the outset. so preventative measures can be implemented as soon as possible.
CLM Fireproofing are the UK’s leading passive fire protection contractors, with over 35 years of experience in the industry. Our trusted team of specialists have worked on some of London’s most iconic buildings, including The Shard. We also specialise in fire protection compliance, working to ensure that our clients deliver projects to the highest possible standards. Contact our dedicated team to find out more.