The Challenges of Old Fire Protection
We often have to deal with aging infrastructure and make tough decisions on when the life expectancy of fire protection systems has reached unsafe levels or has just expired. In general, most buildings have a lifespan depending on the materials used, that range anywhere from 30-50 years.
Many buildings constructed from concrete, brick or other similar building materials may live one hundred years or more. That does not mean that the fire sprinkler systems inside these buildings will provide the same level of protection they afforded under the original design, nor does it account for the added levels of protection that has been developed over time or the modern-day materials used and stored inside. The use of petroleum-based fibers, plastics, lithium batteries, glues and other related products has increased the need for more advanced fire protection that is capable of controlling today’s modern-day fires. Modern-day fires are burning faster than ever before and producing toxic gasses not seen in fires of the past.
Considerations for Keeping Older Buildings Safe from Fire
The fact is, as buildings age, so do the fire protection systems inside. Buildings require increased maintenance until it is simply an economic decision to replace rather than repair. Leaving life safety up to cost has left us with tragic outcomes over the years.
We see many buildings without any fire protection systems or older less sophisticated systems dating back many decades. Today’s issue is how does one determine when the benefits of newer fire protection drive upgrades to the fire protection systems in the building. This is not a typical approach taken from the codes. Existing buildings are usually granted a pass unless triggering upgrades with significant renovation or changes in use are made.
The Maryland State Fire Commission recently deemed all high-rises in Maryland without automatic fire sprinklers as an inimical hazard. This decision would require some of those aging buildings, without adequate fire protection systems, to be upgraded with lifesaving automatic fire sprinklers.
While this may be unpopular with owners that only have cost as the driving force to life safety, the state fire commission is using their experience and data on modern-day fires to address the need for infrastructure improvements. This places life safety ahead of cost in buildings with decade old fire protection, clearly unable to provide minimum life safety needs in aging infrastructure.
How #FASTESTWATER Factors into Fire Protection
Automatic fire sprinklers have been required in all new high-rises for many decades and the fire commission felt that the aging, or lack of minimal fire protection, has reached a level that action was required. It’s important to understand that even when these older buildings are retrofitted with automatic fire sprinklers, they will still not reach the fire protection levels afforded to newly constructed buildings.
The big reality check is those living in aging infrastructure are among our most vulnerable population and least able to advocate for their own safety. We have seen this story play out repeatedly across the United States in affordable housing, US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) properties, and subsidized low-income senior housing.
The upgrade of fire sprinkler systems or the simple addition of fire protection features in buildings lacking basic fire protection should be driven from a life safety position and not one of cost. While cost is always a driving force, it should not be how we, as a modern-day society quantify the minimum fire protection levels in aging buildings.
For more information on the National Fire Sprinkler Association’s mission to protect lives and property through the widespread acceptance of the fire sprinkler concept, or to become a member of our association, visit our membership page today.