New Department of Commerce and ASTM International reports on building codes and product testing will undermine automatic fire sprinkler proponents and
DON MARSH, EDITOR
New Department of Commerce and ASTM International reports on building codes and product testing will undermine automatic fire sprinkler proponents and challenge gypsum drywall interests. The documents are sure to echo engineering principles that concrete practitioners perennially raise regarding product fire- and impact-resistance ratings; building area compartmentation; and, redundancy between active and passive fire safety mechanisms. Drywall and fire sprinkler manufacturers and trade groups selectively address these points, and both factions have avoided discussion of their products’ performance during the event that prompted Commerce and ASTM officials to revisit building fire safety: the collapse of the World Trade Center twin towers following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City.
The most current report will be circulated early this month among an ASTM Committee E05 Û Fire Standards advisory group. It figures to recommend new methods for assessing structural fire protection and fire resistance of building assemblies. In a nearly unprecedented move, the ASTM International board commissioned a consultant, Issaquah, Wash.-based Fire Science & Technology Inc., to provide the advisory group an analysis of recommendations from the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. NIST’s exhaustive, $16 million World Trade Center investigation (2002-2005) is the subject of a second report, whose authors cite room for improvement in Committee E05’s E119 Û Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Building Construction and Materials.
Prior to the NIST investigation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency noted that E119 does not provide sufficient information to determine how long a component in a structural system can be expected to perform in an actual fire. The standard dates to 1921 and, according to the National Concrete Masonry Association, was subsequently altered to be less demanding for drywall. As the NIST investigation was launched, Portland Cement Association staff outlined for agency officials how sprinkler trade offs had been used to relax model codes’ structural fire-protection provisions since the 1930s.
The NIST recommendations were released in a June 2005 preliminary report, with a final version submitted to Congress in late October. Testifying on Capitol Hill, NIST Director William Jeffrey told the House Science Committee that his agency will work with building and fire safety communities across the country to assure full understanding of World Trade Center investigation findings, and convey the recommendations as formal code change proposals to the International Code Council and National Fire Protection Association.
Investigators recommend, for example, that buildings be designed so uncontrollable fires result in burnout without partial or global collapse. This spells a condition best achieved with containment typical of concrete or masonry walls and concrete floors. NIST also calls for redundancy in active and passive structural fire protection Û a point countering automatic fire sprinkler interests’ pretense that their products, and supporting water supply infrastructure, never fail.
The NIST investigation began in 2002 upon passage of the National Construction Safety Team Act. The law empowers the agency to respond to building failures with protocol similar to the National Transportation Safety Board on highway, rail and aviation accidents. Hats off to NIST officials for recognizing product testing standards and codes that bear on building occupant safety during fires. By absorbing engineering facts from credible groups like PCA and NCMA, the agency is better equipped to fulfill its Safety Team Act mission. When faced with building code provisions that rely too heavily on failure-prone automatic fire sprinklers, NIST officials don’t need to check with NTSB on what qualifies as accidents in waiting.
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