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Testimony to City Council, 2/6/04


Written Testimony by Bill McHugh, Executive Director Firestop Contractors International Association Chicago City Council Buildings Committee
Friday, February 6, 2004

"Give Chicago High-Rise Buildings Owners an Opportunity to Create Fire Safe Buildings using Compartmentation."

I am Bill McHugh, Executive Director of FCIA, the Firestop Contractors International Association. FCIA is a non-profit trade association of Specialty Firestopping Contractors, based in the Chicago area, with members from Chicago, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Furthermore, our members are installing fire protection in Chicago high-rise buildings each and every workday. We are five years young, and not huge by any means.

Firestopping is the process of sealing the many openings and penetrations made in a building's floors, walls, ceilings and doors for wiring, plumbing, HVAC and other utilities. Whenever you cut a hole in any fire rated structure, you violate the integrity of that firesafe box, and thus create an opening for the spread of fire and smoke. Our critical job is to seal those openings to prevent the potential spread of fire or smoke. As a result, our members have a passion for protecting the life and safety of the people who live or work in these buildings.

As a Firestopping Contractor first, and then an association executive, I have been involved in firestopping for 14 years with most of my time spent working in Chicago and the suburbs. Over the years, I have helped educate architects, engineers, labor organizations, code officials, fire marshals, and others about the importance of firestopping and a "balanced approach" to fire and life safety. I've spoken to and written articles for organizations such as the Construction Specifications Institute, American Institute of Architects, Electrical, Sheet Metal and Mechanical Contractors Associations of Chicago, the Illinois Regional Insulation Contractors Association, Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors Association, and others who wanted to learn more about Firestopping. I am also the primary provider of training for the Local 17 Heat and Frost Insulators Union, in Chicago.

FCIA and I appreciate the opportunity given me here today to speak about an alternative method to fire protection in high-rise buildings. The FCIA believes strongly that there are fire safety alternatives to sprinklers that should be given the opportunity to keep our buildings safe, yet meet the economic goals of our city. Like Dr. Gene Corley, who you heard from last week, FCIA believes in the balanced approach to fire safety through the "Triad" of Fire Protection:

  • Detection - Alarms
  • Suppression - Sprinklers
  • Compartmentation - Fireproof Compartments

Whenever there is a fire tragedy, we hear loud cries for "a single prevention solution" ranging from new sprinkler systems to suppress the fire in the area where it started ("room of origin"), to building occupants wearing masks during escape from fire and smoke. Although radio advertisements, TV commercials and press releases promote "a single solution" for fire safety, the reality is … there is no "single solution".

Instead, FCIA believes that the Fire Protection "Triad", of Detection, Suppression, and Compartmentation, should be your standard to protect people. You already know about Sprinklers and Alarm Systems. We are here to inform you about Compartmentation. Compartmentation is fire resistance rated (1, 2 or 3 hours) assemblies, with smoke treatments, that contain the fire to the room of origin, and let the sprinklers and alarms do their work, until the firemen arrive.

The great Chicago fire taught the city, designers and the rest of the country to prevent fire by building fireproof structures. As a result, compartmentation was perfected here in Chicago, the birthplace of the high-rise building. In Chicago, most new and older high rise buildings were built with compartmented fire resistant construction to prevent fire spread both outside and inside buildings. Concrete floors, plaster, drywall and block walls, sealed with Firestopping Systems around pipes, cables, walltops and perimeters, form compartments that protect us when fire starts below or beside our apartment, office or store.

Over the years, holes may have been made in the fire resistance rated floors and walls for new tenant services like computer or phone wires and fiber optic cabling, cable TV, or other plumbing and mechanical services. Until the early 1980's, there were no standards that qualified products for sealing these holes in fire resistance rated construction assemblies. Underwriters Laboratories, Northbrook, IL developed the standard for testing firestopping products for suitability for use as firestop systems…Our industry's fundamental building block.

During testimony last week, Alderman Murphy asked for an alternative to limit the spread of smoke and fire from the room and floor of origin. FCIA's answer to Alderman Murphy and the Committee, is that the "Triad" of Fire Protection; Detection, Suppression and Compartmentation, offers the alternatives you seek.

Compartmentation is the least expensive fire protection feature, as it already exists in many structures. If these "compartments" are sealed against fire/smoke spread with fire/smoke dampers (which restrict air movement in ducts), firestopping penetrations, fire doors and other safety features, the low cost component of the triangle becomes the first option of the "Triad" to implement. Compartmentation is a part of the solution and building owners should be given a chance to make compartmentation work before mandating sprinklers.

FCIA urges the Committee to remember the "Triad" when deciding to vote on this High Rise Building Safety Ordinance. All three parts of the "Triad" should be implemented for fire and life safety in Chicago. The Compartmentation piece of the "Triad", if implemented first, takes advantage of the economics of "fireproof compartments" already in place, while expensive add-ons can be budgeted for over time economically. The benefits of Compartmentation are clear; limit fire and smoke spread to the room of origin, contain the fire, and save lives. "With fireproof compartments already existing in buildings, why not take advantage of this safety feature?"

The FCIA, its Chicago and local membership, will continue to offer our education assistance to the City of Chicago and its building community about this Compartmentation and firestopping as to help promote economically viable fire and life safety systems in Chicago's buildings. FCIA, like you, wants to help protect those who live and work in the City of Chicago.

Thank you for your time and we look forward to being of service.

Bill McHugh, FCIA Executive Director

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