Passive Fire Protection and “Unsinkable Buildings”

On April 10th, 1912, the White Star Liner, RMS Titanic, set sail from Southampton, England, on her first transatlantic crossing. At 883 feet and 52 tons, she was the largest, fastest moveable manmade object ever constructed to date. The White Star Line had produced an advertising brochure claiming the Titanic and her twin sister Olympic as being designed to be unsinkable. She was loaded with 3400 total onboard and included 2240 of the wealthiest passengers of the day. This passenger manifest included Margaret Molly Brown, an American born socialite and philanthropist.  Molly was one of the 706 people to survive this tragedy and would come to be known as The Unsinkable Molly Brown until her passing in 1932, after helping to calm other passengers while loading lifeboats.

RMS Titanic April 15th, 1912

The ship had also been deemed practically unsinkable by Shipbuilder Magazine due to its state-of-the-art double hulled bottom, 15 watertight bulkheads and electronically controlled containment doors that were fully operational from the bridge. The concept was simple, compartmentalize the hull to prevent water from destabilizing or flooding the ship. This has been a century-old strategy also used in ship design to prevent fire growth beyond individual compartment spaces. Ships are made of steel, or from non-combustible material. Designs center around strategically separating them into smaller areas with non-combustible doors. This allows fires to be contained in smaller areas until they can be fully extinguished by the onboard fire brigade.

The modern cruise ship design has changed over the decades to include more combustible materials used in walls and ceilings, leading to many tragic fires on the high seas. In 1960, the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS 60) introduced active fire protection to the design and required all ships built to be protected with fire sprinkler systems. This was the beginning of understanding the importance of intergrading active fire prevention or fire sprinklers in combustible ship design.

This is the same passive, containment only, fire protection strategy that has haunted us for decades, in existing buildings throughout the country. The Bronx fire is a clear example of the tragic outcomes that we continue to see with this life-safety strategy. The five-alarm fire occurred on January 9th, 2022, and was located at 333 E. 181st Street, New York. This fire has already been designated as the third worst residential fire in the last 40 years. It would claim the souls of 17 including eight children, leaving 44 injured and 32 in critical condition. This fire occurred in a 19-story residential building deemed to be “fireproof.”

New York Bronx Fire January 9th, 2022


While the New York Code Article 11 has a definition of a fireproof building essentially as a building constructed with non-combustible and fireproof materials, it is noteworthy to mention that NFPA does not define fireproof buildings in their glossary of terms. In contrast, NFPA uses words that relate to levels of fire resistance in measures of time. This allows for the combination of active and passive fire protection features that work in combination to control fire. When a term is not defined by an NFPA code or standard, we use Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, and find two definitions for fireproof.

  1. Proof against or resistant to fire
  2. To make fireproof

We must understand that buildings constructed with only passive fire protection systems or non-combustible fireproof materials, are using a century old concept of containing fires in non-combustible spaces with doors, until the fire department can extinguish the fire. This strategy alone has long been proven to have limited effectiveness, as today’s world now includes modern furnishings filled with flammable materials which propagate fires at much higher rates. We have seen this tragic outcome many times, and as recently as February 22, 2022, in our nation’s capital. This fire was reported in an eight-story residential building in the 300 block of G street, in a third-floor apartment. It would claim the lives of two more souls and leave 40 apartments uninhabitable in a matter of only 15 minutes.

Washington D.C. February 22nd, 2022

While the codes have not allowed this fireproof standalone model for years in new construction, it has been allowed to remain in many existing residential buildings constructed before the code requirements for active fire protection. We have seen this largely in the affordable or subsidized housing market. Simply stated, affordable housing should be safe housing.


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