Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 17:35 EDT

Concrete block in buildings contributes to a four part ‘balanced design’ that helps contain fires

April 12, 2012

CCMPA supports Ontario Fire Chiefs’ fire-sprinkler findings and advocates containment as part of a four part balanced design to prevent the spread
of fires and save lives

TORONTO, April 12, 2012 /PRNewswire/ – When fire strikes, there can be any
number of contributing factors, from human behaviour (an untended fry
pan; a cigarette left- burning) to the proximity of hazardous materials
(half-empty paint tins stacked in a basement). Regardless of the cause,
however, it’s the structural composition of the building that will
largely determine how well the blaze is contained. And while
industry-standard fire testing deems materials such as gypsum drywall
to be fire resistant, the fact is that they cannot offer the fire
protection of masonry products such as concrete block.

Following two fatal fires that made headlines in 2009 at retirement
homes in Orillia, Ontario and Saguenay, Québec, the Canadian Concrete
Masonry Producers Association (CCMPA) called into question Ontario’s
building codes and whether or not they are doing enough to protect

The same year, a fire at a residence at Wilfred Laurier University, also
with tragic consequences, again raised questions around the fire safety
of our building codes. However, a significant differentiating factor in
the case of WLU, specifically Waterloo College Hall, is that the fire
was relatively well-contained and quickly extinguished compared with
the fires at the Muskoka Heights Residence in Orillia and the
Apartments Belles Generations in Saguenay. Again, while there are
varying and location-specific factors that would have contributed to
these blazes (a lack of sprinklers has been cited in the Muskoka
Heights fire, for example), it’s worth noting that in the construction
of Waterloo College Hall, concrete block had been used not only in the
separating walls between each two-bedroom unit but also in the shared
bedroom walls within the units themselves.

According to Waterloo Fire Rescue, the block walls — in addition to the
concrete slab flooring — were a critical factor in the containment of a
fire that, while tragic, could have been even worse.  

Waterloo College Hall is perhaps a good example of the ‘balanced design’
approach to fire safety in building construction. It’s an approach that
relies on four complementary fire-safety systems:

        --  a detection system to warn occupants of a fire
        --  an automatic suppression system
        --  education and training
        --  a containment system (concrete block) to limit the extent of
            fire, smoke and structural failure

Detection, most notably in the form of mandatory smoke alarms, has been
the most well-publicized and arguably the most effective means of
reducing injury and death due to fire. According to Canada Mortgage and
Housing Corporation (CMHC), by 1999, the fire-death rate per 100,000
one- and two-family houses was 75 percent lower than it had been in
1980 — a drop attributed mainly to the legislated use of smoke alarms
in new building construction.

Suppression is also being legislated in our building codes: in 2008,
Ontario became the last jurisdiction in North America to mandate the
use of sprinklers in high-rise apartments and condos (three storeys and
higher). The recent study by the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs
underscores the need for sprinklers, especially in buildings housing
elderly, frail and handicapped individuals.

Effective containment — or, as it’s referred to technically,
compartmentalization — is a logical next logical step in the
fire-safety equation.
By containing a fire, you minimize its damage and essentially buy more
time until it can be extinguished. Fire ratings obtained through lab
testing offer an indication of that time. Using industry-standard two-hour tests involving exposure to 1800°C temperatures, a wall made of concrete block easily withstands the heat
and the subsequent blast from a fire hose at 30 PSI (pounds of water
per square inch). When the same testing is applied to fiber-reinforced
gypsum panels, the hose penetrates the panels in about 10 seconds.

In a laboratory, we have the luxury of duplicating tests and debating
the merits of one material over the other. Real life offers only one

Concrete masonry can’t prevent fire, but it is the best way we have to
contain and maintain its structural integrity, to help increase our
chances of survival.

SOURCE Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association

Source: PR Newswire