A Beginner’s Guide to Fire Protection in Buildings

Buildings designed and renovated today follow several protocols to protect both the building and the inhabitants from risk including fire protection.

Installing standard fire fighting equipment such as sprinklers is a good first step, but it’s often not enough to contain and prevent the damage fires leave in their wake. Both fire and smoke spread quickly throughout a building, accessing other rooms and floors through walls, air vents, elevator shafts, and stairwells. Within minutes, an out of control blaze can make escape impossible, and the damage left behind can total in the tens of thousands.

While fire extinguishing methods can help, your first line of defense should be to prevent and block the spread of both fire and smoke from their start point, minimizing damage and loss of life in nearly every occurrence.

Preventing the Spread

Fires spread in unpredictable ways, with the potential to blaze out of control within just five minutes of their start. Flames can quickly enter walls, as well as stairwells, vents, and elevator shafts, which can quickly allow the fire to spread in ways that make detection and retardation difficult. Even worse, smoke can spread through these same avenues even faster than the flames, causing significantly more damage and casualties than the flames themselves.

For this reason, many methods of dealing with the fire and flames, such as sprinkler systems, are ineffective in the event of a large fire. While the system is dealing with the threat at hand, it’s doing nothing to prevent the spread of the flames and smoke to other areas of the building, where they may be harder to reach and to extinguish.

This is why fire protection in buildings needs to consist of ways that can help prevent the spread of both flames and smoke, containing the fire to help curb the damage and allow the building’s occupants to escape safely.

Protecting Elevator Shafts

Elevator shafts are one of the most dangerous areas in a building in the event of a fire. They run the entire length of the building from top to bottom, so smoke entering an elevator shaft can quickly funnel to every floor, even those that are not affected by the flames.

Smoke is responsible for the vast majority of damages, as well as fatalities in the event of a fire. Preventing the spread of smoke through the elevator shaft should be a priority for high-rise buildings.

Smoke curtains are one of the most effective means of protecting elevator shafts and blocking the spread of smoke through the building. Hung in a hidden roll at the top of the elevator, the curtain deploys either automatically or manually to block and seal off the elevator. Smoke cannot enter to reach other floors of the building in this manner.

Protecting Stairwells

Stairwells are another concern in high-rise buildings. They also run the length of the building and allow smoke and flames to leave the primary site of the fire.

Smoke, fire, and combination smoke and fire curtains installed at the openings of the stairwell on every floor can help to block and prevent the spread of both in the event of a fire, allowing occupants to safely exit the building from this area.

The curtains are discreetly installed in headboxes at the exits to the stairwell. Deployed either automatically or manually in the event of a fire, this type of fire protection effectively seals off one of the most frequently compromised areas of a building during a fire, protecting it and preventing it from spreading further.

Protecting Windows

Windows are of particular concern in a fire, and in the fire safety design of a building. Fire can both escape a room through a window, potentially reaching structures nearby, while smoke and flames can also enter a building through this vulnerable area at the same time. For this reason, having a fire curtain installed on the exterior of windows, particularly in buildings which are located closely by one another can help prevent the spread of fire and smoke from one building to another. This type of fire protection extends both ways, providing an extra level of protection for buildings in close neighborhoods.

Protecting Wide Doorways and Open Floor Plans

Many buildings today are being designed with wide, open floorplans meant to convey a sense of space to the occupants. Unfortunately, in these types of building designs, it becomes more difficult to effectively prevent the spread of fire and smoke, because there are fewer walls being constructed of flame retardant materials, which in turn changes the way that fire safety design is carried out. For this reason, fire protection needs to become just as flexible as the floorplan itself.

When sealing up wide doorways becomes too difficult using traditional fire doors, other, more flexible methods need to be used. In this case, fire safety design may include using wide smoke and fire curtains across doorways and in between spaces to help contain flames and smoke where they are, preventing them from spreading through the wide-open spaces where they can quickly reach difficult to treat sections of a room. The curtains can be installed either at the sides of the doorways, extending outwards along a track, or in some cases may be installed from a headbox in the ceiling, extending downward across the openings.

In either case, wide smoke curtains can effectively seal off most open floor plans at various points across the room, as well as in wide doorways that extend to other parts of the building, so you can customize the fire protection you need.

Fixed Ceiling Curtains

High ceilings and atrium-style lobbies and entrances are also popular designs for many hotels and office buildings today. Unfortunately, these high ceilings often surrounded by walkways leading to other floors and sections of the building mean that smoke and flames have an easy path out of the center, ground floor of the building.

The ceiling and roof of the building also becomes a concern, both for people who may attempt to leave a building in this direction, and for the safety and integrity of the structure as a whole.

Fixed ceiling curtains offer protection across this section, no matter how high or wide the ceiling. A fixed curtain helps block flames and smoke from escaping or entering the protected area, which in turn can help stabilize the building and prevent further damages and restoration needs.

Horizontal Curtains

In any area where upper stories are easily accessible through a channel or corridor, as well as in atriums and other high-rise buildings that allow the upper stories to have visual access to the areas below, smoke and flames have the potential to be pulled upward from the lower floors. Horizontally installed smoke curtains can be placed in discreet areas on the sides of these “chimneys”.

When deployed, they pull horizontally across the area, blocking the smoke and flames below and preventing them from moving upward. This is ideal not only for open stairwells, but also for lofts and other partially exposed areas where the upper and lower stories are open to one another at one end, as well as in malls, hotels, and atriums where a walkway is used around a central, open area below. Using a fire curtain at each floor helps to block the spread of smoke to the floors above at every opportunity.

Pleated Curtain Containment

Wide, open floor plans often have few to no doorways or compartments that can make it easier to contain smoke and flames in one, central location. This can make it difficult to seal off the area using conventional methods.

For this reason, pleated smoke curtains, which are fixed to a headbox installed above the ceiling are the ideal way to deal with custom-shaped rooms and spaces. When deployed, the curtain can completely surround an area, putting up a barrier that extends to the ceiling so that the fire and smoke are kept in their original location, before they have time to spread to other parts of the room. 

For open floor plans that cannot use traditional types of fire retardant walls and barriers, a pleated fire curtain deployed in this manner can help to contain the spread of fire and smoke more effectively than sprinkler systems, which deal only with the flames.

Make Fire Protection a Priority

With open floor plans and minimal design becoming the standard for many buildings, fire safety design needs to adapt to provide the same needed protection, while remaining discreet and in place when needed.

Smoke and fire curtains are flexible enough to be deployed in a nearly endless array of uses, which can help you protect any style of building from the damage caused by any size fire. Invest in fire protection for your building with smoke and fire curtains to get the best in fire safety design today.