When it comes to protecting property and family from fire, active fire suppression systems, for example, sprinklers. are an important component to consider. However, homeowners and building occupants must also consider other life-saving fire protection components, especially in case of sprinkler failure.

Non-combustible concrete and masonry construction resists fire, does not burn, and provides fire containment through compartmentation or division into units. These passive fire protection benefits do not change during the life of the structure and do not require routine inspection and maintenance to assure proper operation. Automatic fire suppression systems, on the other hand, do. Guidance is provided by the National Fire Sprinklers Association, Inc. (NFSA). Various components of sprinklers require routine inspection. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) publishes NFPA 25 Inspection, Testing and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems which details these components and how to maintain them. For example, control valves without electronic supervision should be checked on a weekly basis, just to make sure that they are in the open position.

Frequent full inspections are needed for fire sprinkler systems. The National Fire Protection Association recommends that a full sprinkler system inspection should be performed at least four times a year by a professional. Local jurisdictions may require more frequent inspection.

Also, owners and occupants need to be aware that fire sprinkler systems are installed for specific occupancies, and may not meet requirements if the building occupancy changes.
The National Fire Protection Association notes that: “Fire sprinkler systems are designed to the conditions which exist, or are expected to exist, within a building when the sprinkler system is installed,” and recommends that “After any changes to the building or the use of the building an analysis should be done to determine if the sprinkler system is adequate.” Even if occupancy does not change, the sprinkler system may no longer be adequate if there are changes in the water supply or changes to equipment in the system.

The following is a partial list provided by the National Fire Protection Association of when a full re-evaluation of the fire sprinkler system is needed:

  • Change or addition of backflow preventer or water meter
  • Change of building occupancy or use
  • Change in building (walls, partitions, additions)
  • Reduction in public water supplies (sometimes done in areas for water conservation)

The NFSA also points out that human intervention can cause problems in sprinkler performance, and gives the following advice:

  • Never paint any fire sprinkler.
  • Never hang anything from any part of a fire sprinkler system.
  • Never stack items close to fire sprinklers (Tops of furniture should be at least 18 inches below fire sprinklers.).
  • Always report damage to any part of a sprinkler system immediately.
  • Always make sure control valves are in the open position.

Finally, the National Fire Protection Association advises the consumer, “Remember! Owning a sprinkler system without having it inspected is like owning a car and never changing the oil.”

Maintenance of automatic fire sprinkler systems may also include repairing leaks. The system may be deactivated because of leaks and remain so until a qualified individual has been contacted and implements the repair. In addition, while you may take the necessary precautions to keep your system in working order, you may not know whether your neighbors have done so as well. Without passive fire protection, building occupants are unprotected from fire if the fire sprinkler system is not in service.

Water supply to buildings may be interrupted due to water main or water line improvements or breaks.
Non-combustible concrete and masonry construction serving as passive fire protection will perform without routine inspection or maintenance. Minimum two-hour fire-resistant concrete and masonry walls between living units can contain fires and protect other units, and such walls between units and public spaces will provide structurally sound escape routes. The building occupants will still need to check to make sure fire doors that may be part of the fire containment system do not remain propped open. Inspection of concrete and masonry elements used as passive fire protection would also be required if building renovations result in penetrations through the concrete or masonry systems, which would need to be adequately fire stopped. For information on fire stopping contact the Fire Safe North America.

When it comes to building construction that provides fire protection over the life of the building without routine inspection and maintenance, there is no comparison to non-combustible concrete and masonry construction. For more information about combining smoke detectors, fire sprinklers, and passive fire protection visit the Pennsylvania Fire Safety Construction Advisory Council.