Sprinkler, passive advocates spar

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Thursday, December 1, 2005

ESSEXVILLE, Mich.--Fire sprinkler advocates here are at odds with the passive fire industry over building codes. Comprising mainly concrete and drywall companies that manufacture structural fire protection such as firewalls, the passive fire industry advocates for more codes that mandate structural fire protection.
However, it's not the passive fire industry's mission, but their methods that have upset sprinkler advocates.
To get codes favorable to their industry considered, the passive fire industry has proposed removing sprinkler alternatives and incentives.
"Passive fire barriers are good; they do control fire. There's no doubt about it. But they don't put out fires the way fire sprinklers do," said Jeff Hugo, North Central Region Manager of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, who was at the International Code Council hearings held in Detroit last September. "They submitted a lot of code changes to reduce fire sprinkler protection tradeoffs...The code council turned down these changes," Hugo said.
However, Steve Szoke, director of codes and standards for the Portland Cement Association, which advocates for passive fire protection from its offices in Skokie, Ill., said "the sprinkler people are telling the story backwards." He said the sprinkler alternatives in the current codes are putting people in danger, as they allow builders to provide less passive fire protection in exchange for sprinkler installation.
"We think sprinklers are great," said Szoke, "we think sprinklers should be pretty much everywhere. We just don't think they should be trading off." He cited a number of instances where sprinklers would not be effective: a natural disaster that disrupted water supply, a large area fire where there wouldn't be enough water to go around, even the building he was sitting in as he spoke on the phone.
"Right now, they're working on the water main outside my office," he said. "If I did sprinkler tradeoffs, should I even be occupying this building?"
Further, Szoke said the passive industry was fighting an uphill battle. Not only are the sprinkler advocates against them, but so too are builders trying to save money and the manufacturers of lesser-quality materials that don't offer fire protection.
This tug of war is ongoing throughout the country.
Hugo's territory includes Michigan, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, all of which adopted the International Building Codes at the state level within the last four years. With a few exceptions, this means that code requirements and variances are decided at the state level; elsewhere in the country this business is done at the local level. Because the codes are newly adopted and at the state level instead of many local jurisdictions, Hugo said, these states are prime targets for the passive fire industry to try to make changes. Szoke said his focus, however, is on the National Institute of Standards and Technology or the National Institute of Building Sciences, hoping that a NIST report on the World Trade Center collapse, for instance, will show the benefits of passive fire protection.
Meanwhile, Hugo has asked NFSA contractors in his region to let him know about passive fire industry efforts.