Beware of Normalizing Life Safety

The Grenfell Tower fire in London is a tragic reminder of the casualties that can occur when approaches to fire safety are normalized. Below, Angie Ogino, senior technical service leader at Owens Corning Thermafiber, discusses the danger normalization poses to North American buildings and their occupants.

Understanding the purpose of a material is essential to avoid tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire

Angie Ogino, technical services leader at Thermafiber Owens Corning, Toledo, Ohio

How does a mindset of normalization threaten occupants’ life safety?

When normal practices appear to be sufficient, acceptance of sub-standard safety designs gradually become the norm.

In the absence of a catastrophic event, a false sense of security can arise, suggesting that existing measures are good enough. When normal practices appear to be sufficient, acceptance of sub-standard safety designs gradually become the norm. Grenfell Tower is a good example. Tragically, high profile fires in other parts of the world have shown that installing combustible materials behind the façade presents a risk factor for rapid exterior flame spread.

Why is it important to go beyond checking the material box when specifying passive life safety systems?

Considering the application that a fire-stopping material is intended to serve is essential. Mineral wool is well known for its fire-resistant properties, but specifying a material simply based on density or thickness isn’t sufficient. The way a material is made can affect its performance. In the case of mineral wool, it can be manufactured to deliver acoustic properties, repel water, provide thermal protection or contain fire. Understanding the purpose a material is designed to serve, and selecting a product tested to the specific full-scale test standard for the application and listed by a certification body is critical when supporting fire-stopping functions in enclosures.

When it comes to fire testing PFC assemblies, the full-scale E2307 testing exposes assembly setups to fire on both sides.

What value does a system approach bring to supporting life safety?

Installing an ASTM E2307-tested and -listed perimeter fire containment system is a basic best practice for high-rise construction. These systems provide assurance that all components—insulation, hangers, mullion covers, etc.—work together to support life safety in the building’s perimeter. Occasionally, metal components in an enclosure’s design—such as a back pan—require a customized system. Owens Corning Thermafiber has curated a vast library of tested and listed systems over the past 50-plus years.

What emerging trends could potentially threaten life safety in North America’s buildings?

We’re starting to see curtainwalls produced in Europe that do not meet North American building codes and align with U.S. life safety systems. Installing fire-stopping components in a system that has not been tested by a certifying organization, like UL, means the safety and performance of the system cannot be vetted as a whole. Life safety risks to occupants may be introduced if there is no testing to inform how a curtainwall will perform in the event of a fire. Similarly, foreign manufacturers of mineral wool have pressed for smaller scale testing to qualify their products for ASTM E2307. These smaller tests do not adequately simulate the rigors of fire exposure in high-rise buildings.

How is the U.S. insulation industry responding to these concerns?

Owens Corning Thermafiber is working with the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association (NAIMA) and other fire stopping groups to express opposition to smaller scale tests and the risks they present to North American buildings and their occupants.

Angie Ogino is technical services leader at Thermafiber Owens Corning, Toledo, Ohio, and has 26 years of experience in the mineral wool and firestopping industry. Her experience includes providing engineering judgments and technical assistance on mineral wool product performance for architects, building officials and contractors in the fire containment area. Ogino is vice president of the International Firestop Council, vice president of Firesafe North America, a member of the Firestop Contractors International Association and participates in code development for IBC, Chapter 7 (Fire and Smoke Protection Features).