Block producers support fire service’s pursuit of ‘balanced design’ in codes

Source: Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association (CCMPA), Toronto; CP staff

CCMPA is backing Ontario fire-fighting officials’ move to strengthen province building codes with the final leg of a four-legged stool. The producers and fire service representatives favor adding a containment system—ideally of concrete block, capable of limiting the extent of fire, smoke and structural failure—to these “balanced design” criteria: detection system to warn occupants of a fire; automatic suppression system, chiefly fire sprinklers; and, occupant education and training for exposure to emergencies.

Following fatal fires at Orillia, Ontario, and Saguenay, Québec, retirement homes in 2009, CCMPA questioned Ontario’s building codes and whether they were doing enough to protect citizens. Another fire that year at Wilfred Laurier University’s Waterloo College Hall underscored questions on existing building codes’ fire safety provisions. Concrete block had been used in the dormitory’s separating walls between each two-bedroom unit, and in the shared bedroom walls within the units themselves. Waterloo Fire Rescue found that the block walls, coupled with concrete slab flooring, were a critical factor in containing a fire that, while tragic, could have been even worse were it not for the facility’s balanced design.

Effective containment, or compartmentalization, is a logical next logical step in the fire-safety equation, CCMPA contends. It minimizes damage and essentially buys first responders more time until flames can be extinguished. Fire ratings obtained through lab testing offer an indication of that window, the association notes: Using industry-standard, two-hour tests involving exposure to 1800°C temperatures, a wall made of concrete block easily withstands the heat and the subsequent blast from a fire hose at 30 psi (pounds of water per square inch). Under the same testing, the hose penetrates fiber-reinforced gypsum panels in about 10 seconds.

A building’s structural composition will largely determine how well the blaze is contained, CCMPA affirms, adding that while industry-standard fire testing deems materials such as gypsum drywall to be fire resistant, the fact is that they cannot offer fire protection comparable to masonry products.