MEDIA RELEASEPoor fire protection puts more than lives at risk. The bulk of public buildings in New Zealand are operating without the correct passive fire protection systems, putting the occupants at risk in the event of a fire – and potentially jeopardising the buildings’ insurance and business continuity.
That's the view of two of the passive fire industry’s leading national identities, Frank Wiseman and Ron Green, who fear it could take a major fire disaster to awaken people to the dangers, just as the Christchurch earthquakes raised national awareness of earthquake compliance.
"I’d estimate that 99.9 percent of buildings don’t comply with the passive fire requirements as set out in the building code," says Mr Green, chairperson of the Association of Building Compliance and a director of Building Compliance and Fire Consulting Ltd.
"In most cases the wrong passive fire-protection system has been selected, the installation work hasn't been done properly, or the job has been signed off inaccurately. People’s knowledge of passive fire protection is seriously inadequate. They forget that passive fire protection is also about smoke – they just think about flame."
Mr Green says he has been advised recently by three major insurance companies that they intend to investigate culpability should a fire spread due to faulty passive fire work.
"They will certainly be looking for ways to reduce their financial loss and will look at who is at fault – this could be the owner, builder, subtrade or the IQP [Independently Qualified Person]."
"Since the devastating Christchurch earthquakes, insurance companies are looking very carefully at the circumstances of each claim, and some are even asking for passive-fire inspections of substantial public buildings," adds Mr Wiseman.
"We know there are many dangerous buildings across New Zealand that don't meet the required passive fire-stop safety standards, and feel this is now the major issue facing the construction industry, following on from leaky buildings and earthquake-prone buildings."
Mr Wiseman is a certified verifier for NZQA Passive Fire Protection Level 3 and Level 4. He works hands-on in the industry as a director of CSD Sealing Systems in Auckland and of the Australasian arm of Beele Engineering, two companies that worked together to make a fireproof escape corridor inside the Victoria Park Tunnel in Auckland – enabling it to become New Zealand's only dangerous goods certified tunnel.
He says the correct sealing of service penetrations is critical, yet is the most misunderstood area of fire protection.
"Any incorrect fire-stop seal jeopardises the integrity of the whole building. Building authorities, engineers and architects, through to IQPs and building managers have only one chance to get it right. It's the weakest link."
The two men also tour the country training various interest groups including tradespeople who use fire-stop products, and say they are constantly amazed at what passes for compliance standards.
"We get builders coming up after the training sessions to say that they now realise all of their past passive-fire work has been installed wrong, and inspectors saying they now realise they have signed off things that are unsafe," says Mr Green.
"In most cases there is a total lack of coordination of different trades installing services in the buildings, particularly in relation to services penetration through fire-rated elements," says Mr Wiseman.
"Almost every building I have inspected has incorrectly sealed and non-compliant service penetrations that pass through fire separations, yet many of these buildings still hold compliance certificates and Building Warrant of Fitness."
He says the official determination of fire in the compliance documents for fire safety is "the state of combustion during which flammable materials burn producing heat, toxic gases, or smoke or flame or any combination of these".
"Smoke leakage, or more specifically cold smoke, is the most overlooked and misunderstood area of correct design, inspection or installation of a Fire Resistance Rating sealing system. The worst instances are bundles of cables or trays with multiple cables – if you seal around the outside of the cables only, smoke will move quickly through the gaps between them. Similarly, pipes must be sealed for smoke where they enter the penetration."
According to the International Code Council Building Safety Journal Online June 18 2010, the volume of smoke and toxic gases that will pass through a hole the size of a pencil is enough to overcome a person within 3 minutes and 40 seconds in a room 6m x 3m. “Ask anyone in the fire service and they will say smoke is our biggest killer. Yet incorrect sealing against cold smoke can turn a 2-hour fire resisting rated system into a 4-minute one."
They agree that the main problems stem from an almost universal lack of knowledge and understanding that passive fire protection is all about approved systems – simply using a fire-rated sealant and/or expanded foam on all penetrations does not constitute passive fire protection. This is exacerbated when approved systems are installed outside their scope of design, or mixed with similar products that have never been tested together. What's more, they say most local councils and IQPs have scant knowledge about inspecting passive fire protection systems.
"Typically, much of this is encouraged by cost-cutting owners, constructors and sub-contractors, and survives because of the widespread apathy that surrounds these regulations," says Mr Green.