Incorporating Fire Testing into Building Codes

Learn why fire safety standards were developed to help ensure life safety and protection of property

04 August 2022

Every 23 seconds. That's how often a fire department in the U.S. responded to a fire in 2020, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The organization reports that more than one-third of these fires (490,500 — or 35 percent) occurred in or on structures. Structure fires also accounted for the highest number of losses to fire, including death, injury, and property damage.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has a long history with structure fires and the devastation they cause:

  • 28 November 1942 | Boston, MA: the Coconut Grove Club was the scene of the deadliest nightclub fire in history, killing 492 people. Plastic décor within the space contributed to fire and its spread, along with the number of occupants in a tight space, and limited egress.
  • 5 June 1946 | Chicago, IL: a fire broke out in the La Salle Street Hotel, killing 61 people, many of them children. The fire began on the lower floor in the walls or ceiling before ascending stairwells and shafts, contributing to the speed at which the fire spread.
  • 7 Dec 1946 | Atlanta, GA: When the Winecoff Hotel was built in 1913, the building was declared "absolutely fireproof." However, it was designed and built without sprinklers, fire escapes, or even an alarm system. During a fire there in 1946, 119 people lost their lives.
  • 20 February 2003 | West Warwick, RI: A fire at The Station nightclub resulted in 100 deaths after pyrotechnics used by the band playing that night ignited acoustic foam glued to the ceiling. The foam was not to code and the club had inadequate egress.

What do these events have in common? In each, the building lacked:

  • an alarm to notify occupants and first responders
  • interior fire separation
  • fire suppression, such as sprinkler systems
  • egress, adequate exit doors
  • closure and pressurization/ventilation of stairwells
  • interior finishes and materials resistant to combustibility and smoke development

The examples illustrate why are fire tests are so important when building both residential and commercial structures. In the building and construction industry, we fire test to preserve life safety and protect property.

As a result, we have regulatory requirements for fire and flammability testing in the form of the Model Building Code. In the 2018 International Building Code alone, fire testing features prominently, with approximately 55 fire test standards referenced some 230 times:

  • ASTM E84 – 33 times (counterpart is UL 723 – 32 times)
  • ASTM E119 – 31 times (UL 263 – 29 times)
  • NFPA 286 – 12 times
  • NFPA 252 – 9 times (UL 10C – 9 times)
  • NFPA 257 – 8 times
  • NFPA 285 – 6 times
  • ASTM E1354 – 1 time

For commercial construction, fire tests can be categorized in four different groups:

Flame Spread – determines how fast flames will travel by assessing the ignition source, smoke measurement, radiant flux, and interior and exterior materials (roofing, flooring).

Fire Resistance – this measures how well the fire can be compartmentalized to protect egress and the structure by evaluating walls, floor/ceilings, doors, penetrations, joints, and structural fire protection.

Radiant Panel – looks at resistance to ignition from radiant heat. For example, if there are two buildings side by side and one is on fire, will the radiant energy ignite the other building.

Reaction to Fire – also referred to as small-scale material properties, measures ignition temperature, heat release rate, potential heat, and material combustibility.

This is just a brief overview of why fire testing is necessary and the primary aspects that are evaluated. However, if you are interested in learning about the specific fire standards and how the tests are conducted, I recently presented a webinar that is available to watch on-demand – Fire Testing Fundamentals and Certification Requirements – which goes into more detail about the major fire testing standards and regulatory requirements, as well as the benefits of testing and certification.

 

Barry Badders Intertek headshot

Barry Badders,
Chief Engineer

Barry has 25 years of experience in the construction industry, with 20 years of experience in fire testing and product certification. He has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, a M.S. in Fire Protection Engineering, and is a Licensed Professional Engineer. He is the outgoing chair of the NFPA Fire Test Committee and active in standards development with ASTM and ISO.