Building systems make indoor spaces suitable for occupancy, but short-term disruptions can normally be tolerated. A blackout is inconvenient, but it does not pose an immediate threat in most cases. The same applies if space heating is turned off for a quick inspection, since the building does not become cold right away. However, fire protection engineering is a different story, since fire can have devastating effects in a short time.
Humans stay away from fire instinctively, but the risks of smoke are often overlooked. Smoke limits visibility, making evacuation more difficult, and it is lethal when inhaled in large amounts. For this reason, smoke accumulation is also considered a serious threat in fire protection engineering.
Fire protection systems must be capable of detecting fire and smoke, warning occupants, and activating automatic measures to prevent or mitigate damage. Automatic sprinklers are among the most effective fire protection measures, since they can quench most fires when they are still small.
When fire is detected inside a building, occupants must be warned as soon as possible. To achieve this, fire protection engineers specify heat and smoke sensors, which trigger alarms automatically. Manual devices to activate the fire alarms are also provided, in case someone sees a fire that has not been detected by sensors yet.
In the USA, the main reference for fire alarm design is the NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. Consider that local building codes may include additional requirements, so it is important to work with fire protection engineers who are familiarized with them.
When fire protection systems are well designed, most incidents are controlled without intervention from the local fire department. Automatic sprinklers provide one of the most effective ways to protect buildings from fire, and their requirements are covered in the NFPA 13 standard. Contrary to popular belief, sprinklers do not shower your entire building when they activate; they respond individually to heat, which means only the sprinkler heads directly above the flames release water.
As mentioned above, smoke also represents a significant hazard, and its accumulation must be prevented at all costs. To address this issue, fire protection engineers design exhaust systems that use fans to purge indoor smoke.
Fire protection engineers also design measures that help firefighters, for cases where the automatic systems in a building are not enough to control a fire. The following are some examples:
Since fire protection systems are critical for building safety, they are normally subject to stringent requirements in building codes. However, the price of these systems is small compared with the cost of the avoided damage, so they can be considered an investment. Fire protection engineering safeguards your building and everyone inside.