Research to the performance and adequacy of fire compartmentation

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Fire compartmentation is an important aspect in the design of buildings. Buildings need to be divided into one or more fire compartments, which are intended as the maximum extension area of the fire. Compartmentation systems are designed to prevent fire spread to adjacent compartments. The performance of compartmentation systems depends on many different factors with many uncertainties. Moreover, the implementation of these systems in practice is vulnerable for mistakes and weaknesses. Also it is not clear what is actually achieved by the current legislation and policies for compartmentation in terms of safety of people and protection of property. Little research has been carried out on the performance of compartmentation systems in actual building fires. In the Netherlands, some research was carried out on the performance of compartmentation during a research on high-damage fires in 2001 by Nibra and NCP. It was found that compartmentation was in approximately 35% of the high-damage fires was not sufficient to prevent fire spread to other compartments in the building. Whereas it is often difficult to determine the causes of fire spread to adjacent compartments and to determine the quality of the compartmentation before the fire started, shortcomings are often mentioned as main reasons in case of premature failure of compartmentation systems. Shortcomings are in this case defined as elements in a compartmentation system which are not built in accordance with the applicable legislation and standards, elements which are not correctly used or elements which are not properly maintained. To get insight in the presence of shortcomings in buildings, some inspection reports have been analysed. It turned out that many shortcomings are present in the analysed buildings and that these shortcomings have a strong influence on the performance of fire compartmentation. Especially shortcomings related to doors, ducting and piping are frequently found in buildings. The presence of shortcomings is more or less similar in the analysed buildings; no clear relation can be distinguished with the function of the building (meeting, office, industrial) or the age of the building based on the inspection reports. Most shortcomings (±70%) in fire compartmentation occur during construction and/or maintenance/modification works in the building. Also a lack of maintenance is an important cause of shortcomings. A lack of awareness among stakeholders about the importance of proper compartmentation is probably the main source of these shortcomings. Although the quality and performance of compartmentation is often worse than intended, fatalities are generally not attributed to bad performance of compartmentation, especially not in office, meeting and industrial buildings. In building fires where fatalities occurred, (insufficient) performance of fire compartmentation was generally not appointed to be decisive. For the prevention of casualties it seems therefore generally not necessary to improve the quality of compartmentation systems in these buildings compared to the modern day standard. If significant improvements in prevention of fire damages by fire compartmentation are envisaged by building-owners and/or insurers, more attention should be paid to good implementation and maintenance.