Understanding the Differences Between Active vs. Passive Fire Protection Systems

Building fires can be a catastrophic incidence from which a business never recovers. According to national estimates, non-residential fires cost business and building owners more than $2 billion in damages each year. This doesn’t account for the loss of time and business involved while restoring and rebuilding after a fire.

That’s why every building needs to have a fire protection system in place. Fire protection systems help to stop and eliminate the spread of fire, smoke and flames so that the damage is contained and minimized, helping to prevent loss of life and keep the expenses to a minimum.

There are two types of fire protection systems, which every building needs to have to maximize their protection: active and passive systems. The two types of systems work together to help stop and contain the threat of a fire. Alone, each one can be effective, but, together, they offer you the best type of protection you can get for your building.

Active Fire Protection Systems

An active fire protection system means that action of some kind is taking place. This action can be manual, meaning that a person or persons may engage in it, or it may be automatic, deploying once fire, smoke or heat is detected.

Active systems are largely designed to directly combat the fire, working to help put it out. What the fire department will be using once they arrive is an example of an active fire suppression system.

Most buildings are also equipped with active systems that can be deployed onsite in the event of a fire. These can include:

  • Smoke detectors which will activate with noise and light to alert the occupants of the building

  • Fire extinguishers which can be manually operated to help put out small fires,

  • Sprinkler systems which will automatically activate to help put out the fire while building occupants move to safety

  • Some ventilation systems which help to direct smoke out of the building and away from occupants or areas where it may do the most damage

Active fire protection systems are generally installed based on criteria such as occupancy and building size. For example, you’ll want a set number of sprinkler heads per feet. It’s also generally considered a good idea to add extra active systems in areas that may contain more sensitive equipment, or that may have a higher than average risk, such as areas with flames or cooking implements.

Many people feel that active systems may be their building’s best line of defense against a fire. But, active systems can only do so much.

While they can help to contain or suppress the fire, there are places where flames and smoke can go that these systems can’t reach. When this happens, the building may become compromised, and the fire may spread beyond the control of even the best active systems.

That’s why the inclusion of passive fire protection systems is imperative to the total protection of the building.

Passive Fire Protection Systems

While many people like the sound of action and infer from this that an active system will be the most effective way to protect a building from fire, passive systems are equally as - if not more than - effective at preventing damage and loss of life.

In a passive system, stationary materials are designed to help prevent the spread of fire or smoke, keeping the fire to its original area and stopping it from spreading through the building. When combined with an active system, a passive system can help put out a fire faster and stop a lot of damage from occurring.

Passive fire protection systems are mostly built right into the building. This may mean using fire retardant materials when constructing the floors, walls and ceilings of the building. For example, cinder block walls are going to be less likely to spread flames than a wood frame wall.

Other passive systems may be added later, after the actual construction of the building has ceased. These systems may include smoke baffles, fire doors and fire-resistant glass partitions.

They also include things like smoke and fire curtains, which can combine active and passive systems; fire and smoke curtains may deploy after a fire or smoke has been detected, but then become a passive part of the fire suppression system.


Some smoke curtains may also be used in permanent positions at the tops of warehouses and other tall, open spaces.

A passive system’s objective is to hold the smoke and flames in one, contained area or to channel it out of the building. If the smoke and flames cannot spread to other areas inside of the building, then they’re easier to put out, there are fewer people who may be affected, it’s easier for people to leave the building safely and there’s less equipment that may be affected or damaged.

Passive fire protection systems should ideally be installed throughout a building. If flame retardant materials can be used in construction, they should be. In addition, areas that are sensitive or that may conduct smoke and flame—such as stairwells and elevator shafts—should have an additional layer of passive smoke protection, such as smoke curtains, as well.

Working Together

Buildings ideally need both systems to gain maximum protection. While active systems can help people evacuate or fight the flames, active or moving parts often mean room for malfunction or error. If the sprinkler pipes were to freeze, for example, then they would become inoperative.

For this reason, passive systems should also be installed throughout buildings.

Passive and active fire protection systems may also work together to optimize the safety of the building. For example, passive smoke curtains may help direct smoke toward vents, where the smoke can be flushed from the building. Or, passive materials may force flames and smoke to remain in one area where fire suppression systems can put out the fire more quickly.

While newer buildings are being constructed with passive, flame-resistant materials, older buildings can be retrofitted with smoke curtains and panels that can help add this crucial layer of protection and maximize the effectiveness of existing active systems.

To gain the best fire suppression and prevention system for your building, both active and passive fire protection systems should be employed. Together they can help prevent the kind of expensive damage, catastrophic injuries and loss of life that can occur in non-residential buildings each year.

Get a Better Fire Protection System


While smoke detectors and sprinkler systems may seem like the first line of defense against a building fire, it’s passive systems that create the physical barriers against smoke and flame.

By layering the two systems together, you’ll have the best chance of containing and limiting the spread of fire throughout your building. In turn, this helps minimize damages and associated costs.

Whether building from the ground up or retrofitting an older building, it’s possible to include fire suppression systems that can work together effectively. Make sure you include both passive and active fire protection systems in your building’s design to get the best protection against the threat of fire.

For more information on how to include a smoke and fire curtain into your design, contact Smoke Guard to speak with a professional.