Passive fire protection advocate owes public apology

Guest Commentary
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Your article concerning the passive and sprinkler industry is interesting (see the December issue of Security Systems News). Steve Szoke (spokesman for the Portland Cement Association, see accompanying piece) knows that people are dying in buildings protected by passive barriers. He also knows that people are not dying in fire sprinkler protected buildings. His suggestion that the codes are putting people in danger because the codes, for over 20 years, have allowed construction tradeoffs for fire sprinklers is grossly false and misrepresented. Ask him what happened to One Meridian Plaza in Philadelphia (it is gone because of passive failure; the only part of the building not destroyed by fire was a sprinklered area). Ask Szoke about the Windsor Building fire; how effective was the passive fire protection? Just do a web search of major fire losses in high-rise buildings and you will find plenty of evidence of passive failure and sprinkler success. The non-stakeholder National Fire Protection Association reports this information. The fire service community understands and disagrees with the concrete products argument. Szoke suggests the answer is a concrete compartment that contains the fire--the fire service is not willing to accept the loss of life within this compartment. Furthermore, the fire service knows the effectiveness of a passive barrier to control smoke spread is quite dismal. What is most disheartening is that the current codes provide a very large market for the concrete products industry yet they greedily argue for a bigger market share at the expense of safety to the public.
Now Szoke appears to be using a terrorist act and national disaster to promote his greedy employer. Using the WTC as a vehicle to promote his product is insulting and disgusting. The fact of the NIST report on the WTC collapse is simply the building was not designed to withstand the blow of a Boeing 767 flying at 200+ mph. The NIST report says that spray-on passive material failed, the fire sprinkler system was disabled and exit paths were destroyed. It is a miracle that 2/3+ of the occupants were able to exit the WTC before it collapsed. What makes this doubly offensive is Szokes argues the WTC is an example of the problem of fire sprinkler tradeoffs. He knows that the WTC was constructed without fire sprinklers and there were no construction tradeoff allowances for sprinklers, tradeoffs he advocates to remove from the codes--this building was all passive-barrier protected, as Szokes promotes. The fire sprinkler system was added after the building was occupied.
I for one must argue that Portland Cement owes the public an apology. They have placed their greed above that of the safety of the public.


Dennis Dewar is a former Fire Marshal, currently living in Florida.