What is a Fire Protection and/or Life Safety System?

A blanket term of “fire protection system” is applied, in industry, to both fire protection and life safety systems. While both types of systems are important in their own right, there is a critical difference. Both systems can be generalized by the term “fire safety systems.”

Life Safety Systems

A life safety system is a fire safety system that:

  1. Is designed and installed primarily or exclusively to prevent the loss of life during the course of a fire
  2. Is not intended to protect property or ensure business continuity
  3. Is designed and installed to provide early warning of a fire event to effect life safety
  4. Is designed and installed to notify occupants of when to evacuate buildings and to notify the fire department of a fire at a particular address, mostly in commercial systems
  5. Is designed and installed to facilitate egress from a building

Smoke and carbon monoxide alarms within homes are life safety systems. They are designed to alert occupants to the presence of fire and notify them to evacuate the home and call the fire department. A commercial fire alarm system, with manual pull stations, smoke detectors, heat detectors, waterflow detectors, and other devices are life safety devices. Emergency lighting for egress, such as illuminated exit signs, are life safety systems that serve to assist safe evacuation during smoky fire conditions, or when primary power failure has occurred.

Fire Protection Systems

Fire protection systems are fire safety systems that are designed and installed to perform at least two out of the three following objectives:

  1. Protect the property from the damaging effects of fire
  2. Protect the occupants of the building from the damaging effects of fire
  3. Ensure commercial business continuity

Fire protection systems exist as passive or active systems, which are differentiated below.

Passive Fire Protection Systems

Passive fire protection systems do not really stand out as a system; they are mostly unnoticed after a building is constructed, and are known mainly to building designers, contractors, and building inspectors. This is why they are called passive fire protection systems. Passive fire protection systems are elements and systems of construction that are designed to resist the passage of fire and/or smoke. This construction is normally noncombustible. Passive fire protection systems are rated by units of time, which is the amount of time they can pass standardized fire exposure tests without failing. For instance, a “2-hour” rated floor can withstand the standard fire test for two hours without failure. Contrary to popular belief, this does not necessarily mean this floor could resist a real fire for two hours—it may resist it for longer or shorter, depending on the fire’s severity. Passive fire protection is either protection for solid building elements such as walls or floors, or protect openings through fire-rated walls or floors, such as a fire door. Passive fire protection systems are a type of fire safety system.

Active Fire Protection Systems

Active fire protection systems are fire safety systems that protect against fire by extinguishing, suppressing, or controlling a fire. There are numerous types of systems that do this, such as, but not limited to condensed aerosol systems, automatic fire sprinkler systems, clean agent systems, and dry chemical systems. The most common type of active fire protection system are automatic fire sprinkler systems. Systems other than sprinkler systems are considered “alternative automatic fire-extinguishing systems,” and their uses are relegated by the building and fire codes. The term “fire suppression system” often refers to these “alternative automatic fire-extinguishing systems.”

Local versus Total Flooding Fire Protection Systems

Local fire protection systems protect a small area, or hazard. Examples of such protection are a paint mixing station, electrical panels, CNC machines, engine compartments, and portions of wind turbines. Local application systems do not extinguish fires that are present in entire rooms.

Total flooding fire suppression protects rooms in the same way that a fire sprinkler system does; that is, it extinguishes the fire completely in the designated room or space. Spaces that might have this type of protection include, but are not limited to electrical rooms, switchgear or control rooms, generator rooms, energy storage systems (large batteries), elevators machine rooms, and museums.

Condensed Aerosol Systems

An emerging fire protection system that is an active fire protection system used for both local and total flooding applications is condensed aerosol fire protection systems. Condensed aerosol fire-extinguishing systems are governed by NFPA 2010. These systems use a mixture of particulates and propellant gas to extinguish fires, and can be used in total flooding or local application systems. Their simplicity, effectiveness, and adaptability afford cost effective measures at active fire protection. A notable distinction of condensed aerosol fire protection systems are that they extinguish fires partly by chemical means—that is, by arresting the chemical chain reaction that is necessary for a fire to propagate. The legacy halon fire protection systems arrested fire in this manner exclusively, and was the reason they were so effective, so much so that they are still used in the military.

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