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A Balanced Approach to Fire Safety

“Regardless of the cause… it’s the structural composition of the building that will largely determine how well the blaze is contained. And while industry-standard fire testing deems materials such as gypsum drywall to be fire resistant, the fact is that they cannot offer the fire protection of masonry products such as concrete block.” - Paul Hargest

In the recent article, “Concrete Masonry Provides Fire Resistant Construction” featured in the Concrete Masonry Designs publication, Paul Hargest explores masonry’s role in fire resistant construction. Paul is the president of the Canadian Concrete Masonry Producer Association and owner and president of Hargest Concrete in Ontario, Canada. After a series of fires in large living communities in Canada, the Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association, or CCMPA, examined existing building codes for adequate protection of residence from fires. One of the fires, in a residence hall at Wilfred Laurier University, was contained better and extinguished quicker than the other in part due to the buildings use of concrete block to construct the separating walls between the units and the walls separating each room within the units. Fire rescue cites the use concrete block for wall construction along with concrete slab floors for assisting fire crews in containing and extinguishing the blaze.

Illustration of benefits of concrete masonry fire resistance

Concrete masonry units (CMU) are an integral part of a balanced approach to fire safety in newly constructed buildings. This approach includes detection, through the use of mandatory smoke alarms, suppression in the form of sprinkler systems, and finally compartmentalization, which is where concrete masonry products come in. Compartmentalization is defined as “effective containment.” By constructing walls throughout a building with concrete block, in addition to fire rated concrete floors and ceilings, you can minimize damage from the time that containment buys fire crews. Concrete block can withstand high temperatures and water pressure from fire hoses better than other materials deemed fire resistant such as fiber-reinforced gypsum panels.

Mr. Hargest concludes his article with this thought: “In a laboratory, we have the luxury of duplicating tests and debating the merits of one material over the other. Real life offers only one chance. Concrete masonry can’t prevent fire, but it is the best way we have to contain and maintain its structural integrity, to help increase our chances of survival.”

wood pallets burned around concrete block

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