Implementing Fire Safety – Practical Guide

By Abhishek Chhabra *

When people in Brazil were constructing the buildings like the Mosteiro de São Bento the options on methodologies of construction and materials were very limited and the behavior of people was fairly predictable. Many of those buildings are still around very well. But now the complexity affecting construction have been changing manifold and so have the availability of new materials. While these changes have been happening at a very fast pace, the laws, and rules (Building Codes) which define minimum requirements takes several years to change. This lag is a systemic challenge and is world-wide. But certain key guides that have been published by International Organization for Standardization (ISO) continue to help define quality and safety across all industries while the laws catch-up. Whether it is electrical safety, industrial products, food, pharma or inspections inside factories, construction sites or hospitals. These guides provide the much-needed unbiased language to help procure and deliver products and services in a fast-changing world. Let us understand how to use these to ensure Fire Safety too.

Any procurement needs an unbiased system that brings about the basic assurance needed for any transaction – “getting what you want”. With so many fire accidents happening in Brazil (and the world); everyone wants these fires to not threaten Life and avoid Property Damage. This note suggests simple ways to implement actionable steps that can be added to Technical Specifications and Commercial Clauses across contracts to ensure Fire Safety. Thus, safeguarding investments and ensuring minimum damage to life and property in case of a fire incident.

Who are the Stakeholders?

For the Construction Industry, the Image 01 defines some key stakeholders who need to enter into commercial contracts (to “get what they want”) with each other. The key language used to define expectations is often a Specification Document. Now defining Fire Safety and its Implementation often slips out due to lack of awareness to ask “exactly” what is needed. 

These stakeholders get involved directly or indirectly in Design, Build and Maintain. Image 02 defines some key steps that ensure the learnings from past mistakes (captured in Building Codes and other guidance documents) are avoided. The tricky part is implementing these concepts with the limitations of time, money, availability of correct products or materials and lack of training, awareness, and comprehension of implementation. A better understanding and usage of the referred ISO guides makes it easy to Design, Build and Maintain. A common thread across these steps is procurement of materials and repeatability of installation. Getting commercial and technical language to align across the contracts of stakeholders makes it easy to assure the delivery of what is designed.

Simplifying Procurement: Materials & Installation for Fire Safety

Before reading on we should know the real difference between voluntary and mandatory. Making anything mandatory requires a Law to be enacted; this requires a consensus. Such laws require Technical Documents (like Building Codes) to be referred to as well. And these Technical Documents also require a consensus. Here lies the risk due to the lag which is well known. A lot of construction gets finished while these two consensuses are arrived at. Hence large hotels chains, hospitals, commercial and retail establishments and insurers and reinsurers never rely on just the minimum mandatory requirements in any given geography. They understand that the rate at which building materials and construction methodologies evolve; reliance on minimum mandatory is high risk and will lead to loss of reputation, money and of course life and property. So, it is common practice to use more evolved and adopted Building codes and even more. So, the Technical Specifications need to be current and updated. And these are implemented using advanced conformity assessment mechanisms for increased assurance.

Conformity Assessment is all the activities completed to determine if a product or service meet requirements (Int)).

Let us read how conformity assessment mechanisms are jointly defined by the experts from 165 countries (including Brazil). These experts form and define the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Below standards have been helping government bodies as well as large investors and specification writers on ways to assess and define “getting what you want”. See Image 03 which gives an overview of the terms and definitions used by ISO’s Committee on Conformity Assessment (CASCO). Below are the three standards whose references should be utilized effectively for procurement. These three are also used to describe a case study in this article.

  • ISO/IEC 17025: General Requirements for The Competence of Testing and Calibration Laboratories
  • ISO/IEC 17065: Conformity assessment – Requirements for bodies certifying products, processes and services
  • ISO/IEC 17020: Conformity assessment — Requirements for the operation of various types of bodies performing inspection

Understanding simple steps with a Case Study

A 300 room 5-star luxury hotel in Dubai would cost around 300-400 Million AED (600-800 Crore INR) to be built. The MEP works which is about 35% of this cost (~250 Crore INR) has key elements to create compartmentalization for ensuring Fire Safety. Compartmentalization or to create a compartment of the area where fire gets initiated helps ensure that a fire that is contained for 2 or 3 hours at a given location giving enough time for evacuation and rescue. This is created using fire doors, partition walls, as well as

thorough penetrations and other mechanisms which help seal the openings for pipes and utilities.

If the specifications or implementation for this fire safety plan is weak or done incorrectly, the property may have a big fire and would be closed for about a year at the least. So, when re-negotiating with suppliers and contractors to save money here, it should be known what an impact such a savings could lead to. The impact of a small fire versus a huge fire!

Without factoring in cost of land, the earnings of such a property (after removing operators’ expenses, the earnings before interest, taxes, and amortization) are estimated to be about 50 Crore INR a year. In case of a fire which could be contained in a room, now turns into a massive accident and possible loss of lives and property.  And of course, the losses of missed earnings, damage of reputation, etc. In Brazil, this closure could be for many years. The math here is easy. Let us understand the steps that can be put in place to increase the assurance and minimize such a loss.  

Step One (Designing & Specifying)

To make sure the inherent fire safety (passive fire protection) will function let us look at the relationship between building materials, designs, and installation. A board or a door cannot really contain a fire in a compartment on its own. Along with ensuring the repeatability of production of a (fire rated) board or (fire rated) door, a similar assurance is needed for all the components and verification of installation as per the design it has been validated by a conformity mechanism.

Bear in mind that a Fire Test Report is only an indication that a Manufacturer and the Installer have the capability to produce and install a door/partition assembly that can contain a fire (for given number of hours). For assurance of supply to the project site you need to rely on a Certification and Listing Body. You may know that it is uncommon to read how the fire door or partition assembly was installed in a test lab. Also, it is impossible to find out how these were really manufactured from the test report! So, for assurance of supply to the project site you need to rely on a certification and listing body (described more below). And of course, the certification body should be accredited by an independent accreditation body to certify based on ISO 17065. A self-accreditation is like saying that, “I am checking myself that my work is correct or not”.

On the same lines the test reports used for certification or verification should come from a Test Lab who has been accredited by an independent accreditation body to test based on ISO 17025. Inspectors validating the installations at the site should have qualification and experience that has been ratified using ISO 17020 by an independent accreditation body. To avoid such a situation (where a product seller or a test lab or a certification body claims that they are good) referencing these ISO standards correctly in specifications is critical.

Step Two (Understanding Certification & Listing)

If a building material or a system is getting ready for a fire test, it is known that a fire test will happen on a given sample/ assembly. This is very different from measuring the weight of a commodity on a weighing scale or flow rate in a pipe or a wire. Hence when the lives of people and property damage are at stake; a better understanding and implementation of the assurance system is important. See the table 1 (Copyright ISO) from ISO 17067 guide in Image 04. This is used by ISO 17065 (for certification) in defining different types of Certification & Listing mechanisms that are used to increase assurance.

Many certification bodies have programs that follow a very stringent mechanism (type 5 or higher) to provide high levels of assurance. As an example, the Fire & Life Safety Code in UAE published by the Civil Defense mandates product conformity as per Type 5 of this table in the Building Code. Large contracts, insurance companies and procurement specifications often use reference to these standards in defining unbiased mechanisms to get high levels of assurance to great detail.

Image 05 shows a typical block-diagram to explain the working of one such certification & listing assurance process.

Step 3 (Verification and maintenance of what is procured)

Unlike procurement of consumer products where rights of consumers are protected by certain laws, Business to Business (B2B) procurement calls for everything to be specified in great details. Ensuring Fire Safety with so many different stakeholders (who all have different commercial motivations) need a robust system for increased assurance. Luckily, there are already proven mechanism followed around the world to implement this. After implementing assurance of materials via a stringent certification and listing process, the ISO 17020 provides the language to ensure that installations can demonstrate repeatability.

A Imagem 6 descreve essas três etapas para explicar a garantia de portas corta-fogo (e até mesmo outros sistemas). As especificações de aquisição são criadas quando o Plano de Segurança contra Incêndio é criado. Como exemplo, é lançada uma lista de portas corta-fogo com suas configurações de design, bem como classificações em horas. Aqui, as especificações precisam definir claramente a certificação e a listagem como critérios de aquisição. Em seguida, quando os contratados estão usando essas especificações, eles precisam entender como a certificação pode ser verificada (usando diretórios de listagem). Os envios de aquisições precisam ser verificados. E então, quando as portas corta-fogo adquiridas chegarem ao local; A etapa 3 torna-se crítica. As evidências de rastreabilidade, como os rótulos de certificação, devem ser verificáveis. Frequentemente, os diretórios de certificação online conterão desenhos, endereços de fornecedores, bem como verificadores de rastreabilidade como rótulos. A instalação precisa ser inspecionada para evitar a anulação de quaisquer garantias e para garantir que o dinheiro gasto no projeto não seja desperdiçado, garantindo uma validação e verificação.

We started with clearly defining an implementable design using published guides (Building Codes) and ensured that the specifications use correct references to enable assurance of materials procured and installations inspected.

The Image 06 describes these three steps to explain assurance of fire rated doors (and even other systems). The procurement specifications are created when the Fire Safety Plan is created. As an example, a list of Fire doors with their design configurations as well as ratings in hours is released. Here the specifications need to clearly define certification & listing as procurement criteria. Next, when the contractors are using these specifications, they need to understand how certification can be verified (using listing directories like Procurement submittals need to be cross verified. And then when the procured fire doors arrive at the site; Step 3 becomes critical. Traceability evidence like the certification labels should be verifiable. Often the online certification directories will contain drawings, addresses of suppliers as well as traceability verifiers like labels. Installation needs to be inspected to avoid voiding any warranties and to ensure that the money spent to design is not wasted by ensuring a validation and verification.

In conclusion, stringent verification processes for the procurement of materials as well as affirmation of installation is easy to demand for!

Table of Images

Image 01             Key Stakeholders in the construction industry

Image 02             Key activities to Ensure Fire Safety

Image 03             Terms and Definitions from ISO’s Conformity Assessment committees

Image 04             Table 1 from ISO guide 17067 defining severity of certification programs (Copyright ISO)

Image 05             Steps of a typical Certification program

Image 06             Typical steps while procuring Fire Doors

About the Author

* Abhishek Chhabra is an Engineer and a Post Graduate Diploma holder in Finance. He has been advocating the need for compliance to standards for improved safety and quality across industries for most of the last 18 years. He has vast experience of promoting conformity assessment in several industries including Consumer Electronics, Industrial, Renewable and Building Products across geographies and jurisdictions.

He joined Thomas Bell-Wright International Consultants in 2013 and has been the driving force behind the expansion of the fire compliance activities into new markets. His valuable experience from other, larger TIC (Testing, Inspection & Certification) companies has helped customers and construction industry stakeholders over the years. Along with helping certification bodies expand their horizons of business, he has been writing articles and presenting at various forums about mandatory and voluntary quality and safety compliances. He also owns and drives a blog and a LinkedIn group called Gurus of Testing, Inspection and Certification ( aimed at expanding the understanding of conformity across the world.