We all talk about fire protection in a very open way to mean the whole system of fire control implemented in buildings and residences, but do you know the actual difference between fire protection, fire prevention, and fire suppression? Apparently, they might seem like more of the same, but instead of using these terms interchangeably, we need to understand their definitions and how they work together as a system, for instance:
This is implemented in the design process of a building with the goal of protecting a building’s occupants and minimizing the damage associated with fire. It provides the broadest possible window for a safe evacuation while also reducing potential property damage. As the name suggests, it’s all about protection should a fire occur, but it does not act proactively to stop them from happening.
Fire protection systems can be active or passive, depending on their functionality during a fire and whether or not they need to be activated, either by human activity or automatically through smart detection.
Active systems encompass most of the equipment and measures we often assimilate with fire protection, being the most visible and audible parts, such as sprinklers and fire alarms. They are called this way because they activate in case of a fire, behaving actively to alert the occupants and help extinguish or minimize fire spread.
Fire extinguishers can also be considered active fire protection equipment since it depends on the wielding of a trained professional and is used to fight fires, as can be automated vents and fans that help to keep the smoke out of corridors and safety exits so the occupants or firefighters can locate themselves inside a building in case of fire.
Passive systems are typically related to structural measures taken to prevent the passage of flames and smokes as well as maintaining the building’s structural integrity. They are independent of any kind of activation; thus, they are called passive.
These structural measures are all part of the fire evacuation plan and are also incorporated into the project since the design phase. It includes compartmentalization, which aims to contain fire or smoke to determined areas, intumescent fireproofing applied to the steel structural elements to preserve its integrity, and even fire doors that provide clear escape routes during evacuation.
These systems are just as important as the active ones. They can sometimes go unnoticed since they tend to be hidden from plain sight as opposed to the active fire protection gear, but they add invaluable safety for the building and all its occupants when they’re most needed.
As opposed to fire protection, a fire prevention plan doesn’t necessarily have to be part of the building blueprints; they can be added into existing ones with little to no structural changes.
These measures are taken to ensure no fire hazards, safely store combustible materials, properly maintain ignition points, and perform regular fire inspections are some examples of fire prevention actions. They are mostly common sense, and there is no need for specific training to identify potential fire hazards. Still, everyone has to do their part to ensure that a fire’s likelihood is as low as possible.
The key here is to keep in mind that even with good proactive fire prevention strategies, there is never 100% certainty that a building is not at risk of fire, so we all have to do what’s on our capability to reduce any hazard and have a fully functional and compliant fire protection system.
Although sprinklers are considered suppression gear, a fire suppression system typically uses no water. It is installed in environments where there’s great susceptibility to water damage, such as museums with fragile artwork or even Mission Critical Processes such as data centers and power generation plants.
With the exception of water mist and Hybrid Fire Suppression Systems that uses tiny droplets of water, Fire Suppression Systems usually use dry chemicals, inert gases, or carbon dioxide instead, sometimes in conjunction with cutting off the oxygen supply in the area affected to suppress the fire without damaging any sensitive equipment.
Because of the release of chemicals, gases, and even oxygen deprivation, these systems are generally installed in confined spaces that can be easily and quickly evacuated. The most critical the protected equipment is, the earliest the potential fire has to be identified, and the suppression put into action. That’s why in those cases, these systems are customarily integrated with a VESDA Unit, which provides a very early warning aspirating smoke detector (ASD). Check out this article for more detailed information on Fire Suppression Systems.
In conclusion, fire prevention, protection, and suppression can be seen as a three-stage process, each having specific ways to prevent or fight fires. There is no choosing between one of them; they are all complementary and deserve equal attention when keeping your building code-compliant and with a fire hazard as low as it can possibly be.