Fires in Buildings
Mario FONTANA Professor Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich, Switzerland
mario.fontana@ethz.ch Mario Fontana, received his diploma in civil engineering and his PhD from ETH. He has worked as a structural and fire protection engineer. In 1992 he was appointed professor of structural engineering at ETH Zurich.

Fires in buildings may have enormous consequences for safety and economy. Therefore the fire design of structures is an important factor for public safety and the design of buildings. In recent years fire safety engineering has become a new discipline integrating all aspects of fire safety (structural, technical, organisational), into the design of buildings. With regard to structural fire design, in addition to good construction practice, safe and easily applicable design methods are needed both for structural members and complete structures subjected to fire. This paper gives an overview of fire action, fire safety concepts, structural fire design as well as recent developments and the main trends in fire safety engineering. Keywords: Fires in buildings, fire action, fire safety concepts, structural fire design, fire safety engineering, prescriptive- and performance-based fire safety design.

1. Introduction
Some decades ago fire safety concentrated on performing fire tests on structural elements in furnaces. However during the last several decades fire safety has attracted the interest of engineers and scientists all over the world. Fire safety science still includes fire testing, but now has a main focus on fundamental research into fire action starting from the combustion process, fire development and fire spread through the building, as well as the mechanical and thermal behaviour of materials, their reaction to fire and the performance of the building structure during the fire. Technical measures for fire protection have been developed and human behaviour in the case of a fire has been studied. Based on such fundamental knowledge, advanced calculation methods have been developed using analytical and numerical tools. The computer simulation of fire and smoke development and their spread through a building as well as the heating and mechanical behaviour of structural elements and complete structures have become possible during the last few years. Even models to simulate human behaviour and escape exist. Fire is an extreme event that rarely or never occurs during the lifetime of a building. However, once it occurs it has huge consequences for the safety of the building, its occupants and the rescue teams and can lead to large financial losses. A growing understanding of the nature of fire, as well as concepts and measures to control fire has allowed the reduction of the number of disastrous fires to an acceptable level. Statistical data show that in developed countries the level of fire safety is steadily increasing. This can be seen from the decreasing number of fire fatalities per year and 100,000 inhabitants in most industrialised countries [1].

gases and smoke. About 80% of fire fatalities occur in dwellings (at home) mostly as single fatalities. the ASTM E119 curve or more recently the hydrocarbon and external fire curve as given in the Eurocodes. fire safety concepts focused on structural and some organisational measures. the cooling down phase of the fire is not taken into account and the nominal fire curves increase monotonically with time. To describe the fire action it must be simplified in a model. In the past.5 Germany USA 1 0. .000 inhabitants. They provide a simple relationship for the temperature of the gases in a compartment as a function of time.5 Deaths per 100.5 0 19 85 19 86 19 88 19 89 19 91 19 93 19 94 19 95 19 96 19 97 19 98 19 99 20 00 20 01 Table 1 Fire fatalities per 100. Further. The most frequently applied curves are the ISO 834 fire curve. 2. The knowledge of the time-temperature development during a fire in a building is therefore important when analysing the structural behaviour. The number is decreasing for most countries. Several nominal fire curves have been proposed in codes to be used in the design process. 80% of fire fatalities are due to smoke).000 person 2 Switzerland 1. They represent a fully developed fire. While the gases and the smoke are the main killers in a fire (approx. whereas today they include a large proportion of sophisticated technical measures like sprinkler and water mist systems.IABSE SYMPOSIUM LISBON 2005 2 3 2. Fire action Fire can only start if combustible material. The combustion process releases heat energy. oxygen and an ignition source are present. In Switzerland structural measures are at a very high level. smoke detection systems and smoke evacuation systems. while technical measures like smoke detection or even sprinklers are very unusual in dwellings. the significant amount of time that sometimes elapses from the beginning of the fire to the fully developed fire is neglected. heat is the primary reason for the damage to the structure of a building.

all other fires claiming only one victim. employing computer simulations may be timeconsuming and costly. For a more comprehensive and more detailed analysis. e. computer simulations may be used. The evacuation itself can be supported by technical measures. which take into account the most important parameters for temperature development.g. namely: .the thermal properties of the enclosures . Only in two of the 33 fires did two fatalities occur. as well as safe access ways for the rescue teams. Human behaviour in fire Human behaviour in fire is one of the most important factors with regard to fire fatalities. Part 1-2 [2] A more realistic model of fires is given by the parametrical fire curves.) and only one case was related to fire spread and possibly to the unsatisfactory application of structural measures [9]. Parts 1-2. drinking.g. as given for example in Eurocode 1.the ventilation conditions in the room . 3. Our investigations on all 33 fires in the canton of Zurich between 1990 and 1999 involving fire fatalities showed that most of the fatalities had a causal relation to the behaviour of the victim (smoking.the type of combustible material . careless use of fire etc. multi-room zone models or computational fluid dynamics models.IABSE SYMPOSIUM LISBON 2005 3 Nominal temperature-time curves temperature [°C] External fire curve Hydrocarbon curve Standard curve ISO 834 time [min] Figure 1 Three temperature-time curves according to Eurocode 1. Appendix A [2]. The designer of a building can facilitate the safe escape of the occupants by providing escape ways such as protected corridors and staircases. e.the fire fighting action Parametrical fire curves can be easily calculated with formulas developed for limited boundary conditions. providing an alarm signal and a spoken message motivating the occupants to leave . With such simulations more complicated environments and more detailed parameters can be taken into account than with the simplified parametrical fire curves. However.

2. as well as (illuminated) signs to direct the occupants to safe exits and measures to keep tenable conditions in the rooms and escape ways like smoke evacuation and emergency illumination are important. small rooms may limit use and flexibility. The structural concept is favourable for buildings with small rooms (cell type construction). 4. These objectives can be reached with different generic fire safety concepts taking into account the type of structure and occupancy. Sprinkler systems are suitable also for rapidly developing fires (as in industrial occupancies). Fire safety has to be regarded as a basic requirement for buildings equal in importance to the load bearing behaviour of the structure.2.2.safety of occupants and fire brigade . A clear layout of the building making it easy for the occupants to find their way out.limitation of financial loss (building and contents) . Human behaviour is a challenging interdisciplinary field of research. The criteria are the total cost of fire safety measures and further aspects like flexibility.1 Structural concept Fire-resistant floors and walls limit the fire spread to other parts of the building. The fire safety objectives and the most important generic fire safety concepts are described and discussed below.safety of neighbours and their goods . Depending on the type of structure additional technical and organisational measures are needed besides the traditional structural fire safety measures. the level of acceptance must be quantified by the authorities or with regard to financial losses with the owner or the insurance companies [4]. 4. The concept is well suited to small fire loads and slow fire development (as in offices and schools.2 Fire safety concepts Fire safety concepts consist of comprehensive structural. occupants and buildings during a fire are an important precondition for the development of successful fire safety concepts. Yearly checks are important to reach a high availability of the system.1 Fire safety objectives The starting point of any efficient fire safety concept is given by the following general fire safety objectives: . etc). technical and organisational measures to fulfil the predefined fire safety objectives and acceptance criteria.2 Surveillance concept An automatic fire detection system locates the fire and alarms a nearby fire brigade. .3 Extinguishing concept A sprinkler system extinguishes fires already at an early stage or keeps them low until the fire brigade arrives. Fire resistance of the structure or the compartment walls is usually not necessary. The fire resistance of the structure can be reduced in many cases. 4.protection of the environment in case of fire Since achieving absolute safety is impossible. 4. Depending on the main focus of the measures the following generic concepts are distinguished. However. The most efficient fire safety concept is assessed by comparing different options. 4. Maintenance and regular checks of functionality are important. architecture etc. Fire safety objectives and fire safety concepts A knowledge of the basic behaviour of fire. The most efficient way to control the effects of fire is to establish a comprehensive fire safety concept with adequate measures to fulfil the fire safety objectives. especially for occupancies like shopping centres and industries. Computer programs have been developed even to analyse evacuation [3].IABSE SYMPOSIUM LISBON 2005 4 the building immediately when fire breaks out. 4. limitation of use. For steel and timber buildings the cost of a structural concept can be important. For buildings constructed of concrete and brick no or little additional cost results. In the fire compartment a total loss of the contents and damage to the building are accepted. Sometimes even unprotected steel or timber is possible.

aluminium and steel is presented in a general way. For conditions similar to the ISO fire the reduction of the section area can be described by the burning rate. releases energy and thus contributes to fire propagation. cracking and shear failure or anchorage failure. the type of gravel. the mechanical stresses. The burning rate for soft wood is constant with a value of around 0. concrete and masonry are only influenced locally in parts of the section close to the surface. while the inner parts of the cross-section still exhibit good mechanical properties. masonry. Below the fire behaviour of the most important building materials like wood. Figure 2 Decrease of strength of concrete and steel at elevated temperatures [7] 5. The mechanical and thermal properties of building materials change at elevated temperatures.3. Structural fire design 5. concrete.2 Strength and stiffness of building materials at elevated temperatures The strength and stiffness properties of building materials decrease at elevated temperatures. Spalling reduces the effective cross-section and exposes the reinforcement. Due to their good thermal insulation properties.3 Some special aspects related to building materials 5. especially where pre-stressed tendons are used which rely on direct bonding. Adding polypropylene fibres (PP) has a positive effect as the melting of the fibres reduces the vapour pressure produced by the heating of the moisture.IABSE SYMPOSIUM LISBON 2005 5 5. etc. The extent of spalling depends on many parameters such as the moisture content.2 Concrete Concrete may spall close to its surface.1 Wood Wood burns at its surface. High temperature gradients in concrete elements may lead to deformation. Wood changes into charcoal at a temperature of around 300°C thus loosing section area. timber. This change of material properties has an important influence on the load bearing and deformation behaviour in case of fire.3. The penetration of chlorine gases during a fire can lead to post-fire corrosion of the reinforcement.7 mm/min. 5. Wood has good insulation properties and small thermal elongations. .1 Influence of choice of building material on the fire safety of buildings The choice of building materials influences structural fire safety markedly. 5. the density. Combustible building materials increase the heat release rate and the development of smoke in case of fire.

It is therefore more efficient to ensure the stability of the surrounding fire compartments by means of additional bracing than by providing a fire-resistant roof structure. The building has bracing in every compartment and the main elements are parallel to the fire walls avoiding problems with dilatation in case of fire. A fire resistance of the roof is in general not necessary for life safety as the roof may only collapse at very high temperature when the conditions in the fire compartment itself are no longer tenable.3. In reality.4 Masonry Masonry walls exhibit favourable fire behaviour. performance-based requirements such as “no collapse of the structure during the fire”. Starting from clearly defined fire safety objectives. alternative load transfer and thermal restraints. For single-storey buildings only the horizontal fire spread needs to be limited in some cases. the type of brick and the type of mortar.IABSE SYMPOSIUM LISBON 2005 6 5.3 Steel Steel heats up quickly due to its high thermal conductivity and therefore loses strength across the whole sectional area. Plastering of the walls has a beneficial effect. or “no collapse of main elements for a given time” or even “repairability” or “no damage to the structure” would lead to more sensible economic and safe design of structures. 6. as well as high strength bolts). 5. By providing alternative load path or by activating membrane action. After the fire the original strength is mostly regained (exception: high strength and cold formed steel. Traditional fire resistance duration-times obtained from single element fire tests must not be confused with the time a building can resist a real fire or even more importantly the time people have to leave the building safely in case of a fire. the structures may survive a large fire even though the individual members do not have a special fire resistance rating. during a fire temperatures do not accord with standard temperature-time curves and the structure of a building does not consist simply of independent single members. applying good construction practice and giving proper consideration to the global behaviour of the building's structure are more important than the traditional verification of building elements against standard fire [5]. Conceptual design for fire safety Satisfactory behaviour of structures subjected to fire is not primarily a question of the fire resistance of the single structural members but a question of the design of the complete structure and the detailing. During the fire the thermal gradient may lead to a deformation towards or away from the fire. Following a choice of examples of good construction practice for structures is presented as an alternative option to traditional design using fire rated individual members. the objectives of fire safety can in many cases be met without providing a fire resistance rating of the single load bearing members. By taking into account the global behaviour of the structure. Figure 3 gives an example of good construction practice for single-storey steel buildings.3. The most important parameters for the fire resistance of masonry walls are the depth of the wall. Instead of requiring fire resistance requirements based on standard fire tests for isolated single members as is typical for prescriptive codes. which can then lead to buckling of the wall. . The time-temperature development depends on the actual conditions in the building (“natural fire” see Chapter 2) and the global structural behaviour will be governed by membrane action.

Figure 4 Membrane action of composite floors can increase the fire resistance time considerably [6] Redundant systems which provide alternative load path may guarantee the stability of the building even if some individual elements collapse during a fire. Multiple bracing and main elements parallel to fire wall. .IABSE SYMPOSIUM LISBON 2005 7 Figure 3 Good construction practice for a single-storey steel building. A generic example is given in Fig. 5 where the collapse of a column will not lead to the collapse of the floor [5]. Tensile action in composite floors or arching action in concrete flat slabs may increase the fire resistance of such structures markedly as was demonstrated in the Cardington fire tests (Fig. 4) [6].

Unfortunately. in practice locally missing fire protection material is not unusual as is evident from Fig.IABSE SYMPOSIUM LISBON 2005 8 Figure 5 Generic example for alternative load path providing fire resistance of the complete structure even with unprotected individual members which fail in case of fire 7. or whether it must be considered in the design of the primary extreme event. The locally missing fire protection distinctly decreases the fire resistance of the structural steel member. such considerations could become necessary in the future. fire and earthquake or impact and fire are usually not combined. 6. the question arises whether a subsequent fire can be regarded as an independent extreme event. Therefore. . earthquake or impact. Robustness of fire safety measures Today’s design practice does not consider several extreme events at the same time.g. fire protection measures that work well in a fire test may not be robust enough to perform satisfactorily after an exceptional mechanical action has occurred. However. so that they are still available after the first event has occurred. we know that after an earthquake very often fires occur and the tragic event of the World Trade Centre also showed that impact and subsequent fire may occur. However. Or how can the fire safety measures be designed. The partial loss may not only occur due to impact following an extreme event. Partial damage or loss of fire protection of structural steel members may have an important impact on the fire resistance of that member. Thus. General advice cannot be given at the moment. Especially in the case of exceptional building structures. but also due to improper application or removal in the area of connection and installations. e. All design methods for calculating the fire resistance of steel structures assume a completely protected member. From a parametric study on columns [12] it is obvious that the consequences resulting from local loss of fire protection are most important.

the behaviour of steel columns with partial defects in the fire protection material subjected to fire was studied. A 3-D finite element heat transfer and structural model was employed. especially for heavily protected columns. . taking into account geometrical nonlinearities. 7 for different areas of missing fire protection and two different cross sections. The robustness of fire protection measures should therefore be taken into consideration when performing fire design. thermal restraints and temperature-dependent material properties.IABSE SYMPOSIUM LISBON 2005 9 Figure 6 Partial loss of fire protection of steel beams in a car park To obtain better information on the influence of missing fire protection. The decrease of fire resistance is important. Figure 7 Reduction of fire resistance in function of the missing area of fire protection for IPE 240 and HEB 300 columns and different coating thickness. Some results of the study are given in Fig. local temperature distribution.

ECCS and IABSE can contribute to the harmonisation and development of fire safety engineering as an internationally accepted engineering discipline. To expand the database on fire a huge survey of 40. Even though fire burns in the same way all over the world according to the laws of physics. engineering curricula in fire safety engineering need to be further developed and harmonised. international organisations like ISO. There exist already well accepted university courses in many countries leading to a master's degree in fire safety engineering. 8. human and organisational components. technical and organisational measures which have to be applied. For the assessment of fire risk many methods have been developed over the last few years. design guidelines must be established. the designer has to prove that his design leads to an adequate level of fire safety. where performance-based regulations and well .IABSE SYMPOSIUM LISBON 2005 10 8. especially in Europe. experience and education would be helpful in preventing the development of national-oriented design systems. e. fire regulations are still national and based on national experience and preferences.and performance-based fire regulations Fire regulations are still mainly prescriptive. They start from easy applicable. Education and dissemination of knowledge It is the goal of fire safety engineering to become a fully accepted engineering discipline. which can be found in [8] and [11]. A European master's course in fire safety engineering organised as a joint venture by several important technical universities throughout Europe could help to reach the goal of international acceptance of fire safety engineering. Appendix 7a. while acquainting each student with the local regulations. In recent years however some performance-based regulations have been established giving fire safety objectives. CEN. visiting over 100 industrial and trade occupancies all over Switzerland.2 Fire engineering. a harmonised fire safety engineering education would be beneficial to avoid a barrier to trade. SFPE. internationally operating engineering companies and the global exchange of research findings. However. Recent developments . IAFSS. giving detailed requirements for the structural. While for structural design and the verification of the structural performance during a fire.1 Prescriptive. for example a traditional structural concept and a concept using sprinkler systems or other technical measures and reduced fire resistance requirements for the structure [13]. In addition. technical. vulnerability (damage potential) and robustness (limit of spread of the fire). in other areas like fire and smoke simulation guidelines are still a long way from general acceptance. Bayesian probabilistic nets facilitate the joint consideration of frequentistic information. It is planned to carry out this study until the end of this year. which are a very strong tool in quantified risk assessment. 8. The designer is free to choose the adequate measures to fulfil the fire safety objectives. design guides To verify the fulfilment of the fire safety objectives in performance-based designs and to reach a consensus in the discussion between designer and authorities. These codes give no detailed fire safety objectives but assume that by fulfilling these detailed requirements an adequate level of fire safety will be reached.000 fires which occurred in Switzerland over a period of 10 years was performed [10]. namely exposure (fire hazard). Moreover. on failure rate data together with partly or fully subjective probabilities.g. It is in the interest of fire safety that fire safety engineering develops into a major discipline. Harmonised design codes like the Eurocode. The rapid change of material used for goods and buildings makes it now necessary to review this data and to perform a new investigation on fire load densities. They permit the utilisation of structural. which represent the state of the art in fire safety engineering. 9. during the years 1966 to 1969 values of fire load densities were investigated by a group of students under the guidance of the Swiss Fire Prevention Association.main trends 8. functional and performance requirements. CEB. rapid risk assessment methods like the SIA Documentation 81 [8] to the very complex application of Bayesian probabilistic nets [9]. well accepted and established codes like the fire parts of the Eurocodes exist. Some regulations allow both approaches and give in addition a choice between different predefined concepts.3 Risk assessment High quality and thus credible risk assessment relies on system identification and the three main components. To reach this goal. However.

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