When the walls come tumbling down

A recent fire in Waterloo, Ontario proves devastating but also revealing, and points once again to the need for a more balanced approach to fire safety - one that combines the use of sprinklers with masonry firewalls.


TORONTO, May 13 /CNW/ - On Thursday April 22, 2010, the owners of several longstanding businesses at a plaza in Waterloo, Ontario arrived at work that morning to discover their establishments in charred ruins. Numerous stores and restaurants, some of them in operation for decades, had been razed - with one exception: a restaurant that was left relatively intact due to a concrete-block firewall separating it from the rest of the plaza. When the flames were extinguished and the smoke finally cleared, the block firewall remained standing while around it, I-beam and steel-stud framing had been burned through.

There are a number of factors that contribute to the spread and severity of a fire, from the building's construction and contents to environmental factors such as wind and rain.

Similarly, there are several elements that contribute to effective fire safety. There is a tendency to look solely to sprinklers as a means of minimizing fire's potential damage and loss of life. However, a more balanced design in construction takes into account the need for containment - keeping a fire in one store / apartment / condo / townhome separate from adjacent units. Experience such as that in Waterloo suggests that this kind of containment can only be achieved through the construction of concrete masonry firewalls.

While fire officials are reserved in their comments about the fire at Campus Court Plaza - the fire is still under investigation - initial feedback would suggest that the masonry wall played a significant role in stopping the migration of the fire and saving part of the plaza.

Undoubtedly, had sprinklers been present, more of the plaza would have been saved - a fact that has prompted Waterloo Fire Rescue to launch an initiative promoting the importance of sprinklers to property developers. The Department would like to see sprinklers used in all new buildings - not only residential structures three storeys or higher (as is now the law in Ontario), or buildings used as seniors' residences (as put forward by Ontario's fire chiefs). In the words of Waterloo's Acting Fire Chief Larry Brassard: "We will be working with other City staff to try and ensure that every new property developer gets the proper information in their hands well before shovels hit the ground so that they can make an informed decision."

But consider the added protection sprinklers would offer in combination with masonry firewalls. For this reason, most structural engineers will agree that effective fire safety requires a balanced-design approach to building construction. 'Balanced' refers to the use of three key preventive components:

    1.  a detection system to warn occupants and the fire department of
        a fire
    2.  an automatic suppression system using noncombustible construction,
        referred to as 'compartmentation', that divides the structure into
        smaller areas in high-hazard areas to control the fire until it can
        be extinguished
    3.  a containment system to limit the extent and spread of fire and smoke

"Intuitively, it doesn't make sense to rely only on one factor - sprinklers, for instance - to protect ourselves from fire," says Gary Sturgeon, a building engineer who also consults on behalf of the Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association (CCMPA). "Balanced Design provides a level of redundancy to help ensure adequate protection even if one system is compromised, impaired or otherwise fails to perform". Summing it up with a hockey analogy, he says, "You don't rely on just your goalie - or just your forwards, or just your defence - to win the game. You need the whole team."

Automatic sprinkler systems are known to be highly effective once activated, but there is on-going debate about their reliability and the unintended yet unavoidable damage to the building once activated - making it all the more important that they are accompanied by other safety systems such as firewalls. And while wood-frame and gypsum receive 'firewall' ratings in industry-standard testing, real-life experience shows time and again that the only wall that truly contains fire and doesn't burn is one made of concrete masonry.

Clearly, the mandating of fire sprinklers in Ontario is a step in the right direction. However, combining them with masonry firewalls would take our safety a big step further. If there is a call for change, then let's make it complete.

PAUL HARGEST owns Kitchener-based Boehmer's/Hargest Block Ltd., is President of Hargest Concrete, and is President of the Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association (CCMPA). Paul is also Vice President of MasonryWorx (the marketing and government-relations body for the masonry industry); Chair, A165-04 Block Standard (CSA); Board Member, Canadian Masonry Contractors Association; Board Member, Ontario Masonry Contractors Association; and Executive Committee Board Member, National Concrete Masonry Association


The Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association operates as Region 6 of the National Concrete Masonry Association and is the representative voice for the Canadian concrete block manufacturing industry. The Association supports concrete masonry producers and suppliers in a number of areas including standards, training, technological research, government relations, and marketing and communications. Through these areas, the Association works to ensure the highest standards of quality, and maintain the industry's strong market presence.

/NOTE TO PHOTO EDITORS: A photo accompanying this release is available at http://photos.newswire.ca. Images are free to accredited members of the media/

SOURCE Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association

For further information: For further information: OR TO ARRANGE AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL HARGEST: Marina de Souza, Managing Director, CCMPA, Toll Free: 1-888-495-7497, Phone: (416) 495-7497, Fax: (416) 495-8939, mdesouza@ccmpa.ca, www.ccmpa.ca

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