“Key Elements in Designing a Fire Safety System”

Proper design of a Fire Protection and Detection System is very crucial for averting accidents due to Fire. There are codes and standards for designing an effective fire protection system but many a times the design professionals have to be vigilant about ensuring that the design that they create is fit for purpose. They should consider all the aspects of the protection and detection required. In this article, we not only talk about the robust aspects of design of a fire safety system but also the need for all stakeholders to work together and overcome the challenges in design.

Many innocent lives are lost due to fire which could have been easily averted with some degree of care and caution. The Delhi Upahar theatre tragedy, the Kumbakonam school tragedy, the Carlton Fire Towers tragedy – all these incidents are grim reminders of the non-chalant and careless attitude of the powers be, the state of unpreparedness that we are in and the apathy for respecting the proper need of fire safety systems to protect lives and other important assets. The government on its part is not very keen in enforcing the standards and therefore the news item about a fire accident becomes as stale as yesterday’s food with the passage of time. There are also many misconceptions in India regarding the codes and standards.

In July 2011, there was a fire in the corporation office in Bangalore where a number of important documents were destroyed in a fire due to electrical short circuit. Sadly, the corporation office did not have a single fire extinguisher in the premises. The deputy commissioner mentioned to the press that as the building was only a two-storey, there was no need for a fire protection system. NFPA 101 Chapter 3 gives definitions for what constitutes a building, while as per National Building Code (NBC), the classification of buildings is as below:

General Classification:

All buildings, whether existing or hereafter erected, shall be classified according to the use or the character of occupancy in one of the following groups:

  • Group A Residential
  • Group B Educational
  • Group C Institutional
  • Group D Assembly
  • Group E Business
  • Group F Mercantile
  • Group G Industrial
  • Group H Storage
  • Group J Hazardous. 

If we have to read each of these clauses, one really struggles hard to find where the office of the BBMP (Bangalore Municipal Corporation) will fit into this definition.

Thus, due to ambiguity in the interpretation of the definition as in the code, the corporation office, it appears has not taken any steps for complying with the minimum standards.

Ideally, fire protection and detection efforts should be defined by the contents in a building and not necessarily the height of the building. Extrapolating this concept, even individual houses are increasingly facing issues of burglary and theft. So, security is pervading all aspects of human inhabitation. The height of the building however defines the scope of the fire fighting system that needs to be in place. In the case of corporation office, as it contained all the property related documents, it is important to have at least designated number of fire extinguishers. I hope the corporation takes this incident seriously and works towards correcting the gaps.

Codes and Standards

The designers have to keep themselves abreast with the changes in codes and standards so that their design is not redundant. Codes tell us the why, when and where of things while standards describe how a particular code can be implemented. These are quite exhaustive and every student of fire engineering should go through these standards and read about the updates.

What is more important – Safety or Aesthetics

The common refrain of most designers is the inability to influence architects on the need for improved safety as against compromising safety for the aesthetic appeal of a structure. We are still way behind those times in the future when those who design fire safety systems will have an upper hand on matters related to design.

There is also the risk of the property owners accusing a designer of suggesting something that can add to the cost. Where to draw the line? This can be a dilemma. On one hand – one has to placate the demands of the client and on the other hand, a designer cannot afford to dilute the safety standards. A delicate balancing act is needed just like the balance needed between the clutch and brake while you are learning your driving lessons in your car. Safety gets precedence over everything else as this is what is going to determine the sustainability of a property. One fire can destroy the aesthetics within no time.

Risk Assessment & Documentation

The designer has to assess all the risks associated with a particular structure and these have to be borne in mind while designing the fire protection system. Documentation of all these risks that go into the design can be a very vital document for the client. Experts have suggested that the designers of fire safety systems should get involved right when a building is being designed. Unfortunately, this does not happen in reality.

Readers, please note that this article is written by a lay man and not by a design expert. But as a layman, it is easy for us to think about aspects of fire safety from a long term perspective. One only needs to analyse the root cause of a fire accident to understand the seriousness of the situation.

Let us look at some of the questions that result more from a rational thinking than from an in-depth knowledge of the subject.

  • Does the site have an emergency exit?
  • What are the different routes for egress?
  • What is going to be the density of human traffic in the area?
  • How easy it is to train the people?
  • Is there a dedicated area for Refuge?
  • What are the possible hazards resulting out of carelessness?
  • What are the signages’s required? Where are these to be displayed?
  • Are the stair cases wide enough for a number of people to escape in case of a fire?
  • How many exits are there?
  • How can we avoid stampede?
  • If the approvals are given for a specific purpose, then how important it is to adhere to these standards?
  • Have all points been covered in the preliminary NOC?
  • Are the structures rated for fire ? Do they need to be fire resistant ?
  • What sort of passive fire protection systems need to be mandated ?
  • Which system is best suited ?
  • What is the level of integration required ?
  • Is the design flexible enough to allow for future integration needs ?
  • Do we need a fire lift ?
  • Where is the  space for Fire Tender to enter the place ?
  • Where is the pump room to be located?
  • How can we ensure that all the valves are easily accessible in the pump room?
  • How can we avoid storing of junk and unwanted items in the pump room?
  • What sort of safety accessories are required in case of an emergency?
  • What is the change management procedure that needs to be taken into account ?
  • What is the occupancy now and how can this change in the future ?

Ignorance and lack of interest in knowing about the standards and codes is the bane behind such designs. While complying with the codes and standards is utmost essential, unfortunately, this knowledge is still vested with the technical experts. Creating a visibility around these standards among the masses in a simplified form is essential. Training all the people and educating them about the codes and standards is another area of opportunity that needs to be leveraged.

To their credit, NFPA and NBC promote a culture of innovation and open thinking. In fact, it is heartening to note that the standards are reviewed considering newer type of buildings that are constructed – like multiplexes, super speciality hospitals, airports, metro systems, malls etc.

I am personally disappointed that the Kumbakonam school tragedy has not been taken seriously by the Government of India. So many innocent lives were lost yet there is no serious enforcement by the Government to inculcate a sense of fire discipline in schools. I know of establishments where there is a fire extinguisher but no one knows how to operate them. Even if the fire extinguisher needs a refill, it is often overlooked and considered not so significant. One cannot blame the common man if the Government itself does not give the subject the importance that it deserves.

For a designer, designing the fire protection system comes with the baggage of all these associated risks – prominent among them being the casual attitude towards fire safety in particular and safety measures in general. So, while designing a fire safety system, paying attention to details is very much crucial.

Value Engineering

A conservative approach to safety always advocates doing more than what is needed for protecting lives and other assets. However, in today’s world, where cost is a major driving force, the designers are hard-pressed to offer something more to the client at something less. So, designers need to work with strategic sourcing to explore cheaper but efficient products to supplement the design of a fire protection system.

If a particular installation does not need a fire sprinkler system, then there is no point in providing one. The NFPA standards act as a valuable tool in rationalising such decisions. But in case there is a need for an additional protection, the designers should go beyond the standards and codes to suggest one. This may be as simple as suggesting a Fire retardant door.

Where it is not possible to cut corners, designers should be upfront in communicating this to their sales teams so that safer aspects of design are not throttled in the name of reducing costs.

Fire approvals

A No-objection certificate is issued based on satisfactory inspection of fire fighting systems. Unfortunately, technical experts allege that NOC has become more of a procedural formality rather than something that needs to be adhered to for the cause of a safer and sustainable future. NFPA, for instance, prescribes the minimum standard for fire protection but in reality, a designer has to prepare a design in a manner that is fit-for-purpose and meets the fire safety requirements of the installation. To sum it up, all the clients and especially the real estate sector should view the design of a fire protection system from a macro point of view rather than a micro view of complying with the regulatory norms alone. Maintenance of the fire protection and detection systems should be considered as an investment and not as a cost. In India, I hope that the real estate forums like BAI[i] and CREDAI[ii] encourage collective opinion on debatable issues such as these.

Performance-based Design

Performance-based design is a design that meets a specified performance level. Example : Smoke will not reach occupants(1) before they can safely evacuate the building. Fire protection engineers have to calculate smoke development and occupant egress based on type of fire hazards in that facility. Another example is : Fire in a compartment with a given amount and type of combustibles will not proceed to flash over.The fire engineers demonstrate this with calculations of layer temperatures or heat release rate as the fire burns. Determining when flash over will occur helps determine whether the fire will spread beyond the room of origin and what effect it will have on the rest of the facility and occupants.These designs are flexible but the risk is that these are based on assumptions which can be subjective and can change.

Performance based designs are more effective for buildings whose functions are unlikely to change over a period of time – like sports stadia.For other buildings, use of performance based design requires excellent judgement in selecting the right assumptions.


Let us accept it. Fire risk is an inescapable aspect while constructing buildings.

There is no such thing as “Fire safe building” in this world. We can only fire proof buildings to ensure that the loss due to fire is minimised to the extent possible. This can be by way of passive fire protection systems like Fire retardant doors, Fire resistant paints, use and deployment of fire extinguishers and active systems like fire hydrant systems, fire alarm systems and fire sprinkler systems. Designers should bring in an emotional quotient in the design by visualising that they themselves or their family members will be housed in the said installation. Even more important is to understand who are the AHJs [i] and their roles. Engineers need to understand the relative interdependency between the different codes and standards. Understanding the latest developments in technology and how to map these changes with the design requirements at hand is a skill that can be easily developed with practice. The clients who avail of these services must ensure periodic audits and risk assessment and also conduct mock drills at regular intervals.

There is an increasing need that is being felt among the globe for sustainable technologies. We all know that FM 200 gas suppression system revolutionised the fire safety industry by replacing the more toxic halons with hepta fluoro propane thereby highlighting the need to introduce a gas that does not cause depletion of ozone layer in the atmosphere. Thus, going forward, we can look forward to sustainable fire safety designs.

We have to help provide safer urban environments and protect India’s energy and infrastructure investments. India is continuing its growth journey in all fronts including infrastructure, power, mining, oil, gas, commercial and retail. Designers have to know that there could be limitations to the design and they need to address these areas. Today is the era of intelligent systems. Devices in a fire alarm panel like a smoke detector know when the detector is dirty and can accordingly adjust their own sensitivity and report this to the panel. There is a necessity to provide total solution to the customer. The pre requisite of doing this is having a robust design.

An integrated multi disciplinary approach right from conceptual stage right through planning, design, construction, operation and maintenance is a must. The designing of a system has to be from structural, safety and electrical point of view. However, today, there is a risk of different teams working in silos. This gap has to be addressed by all means. Designers who design fire safety systems have to keep themselves abreast with latest trends in building technology – notably innovative materials of construction, deployment of new technologies and interpret the correlation between these developments and fire safety. There is also a crying need for designers to be up to date with changes in codes, standards and other regulations.

We are already witnessing that some of the most prominent developers are already visualizing earthquake resistant building designs. If India is gaining prominence in the global arena, then there is a greater need for designers in India to benchmark against international standards. New features are being added to fire alarm systems and sometimes there is a need for the designer to go beyond the call of what a standard or a code stipulates.

The role of building designer/ architect in the successful installation of a fire safety system need not be overemphasized. The designers of fire safety systems need to have the analytical capability and access to tools to anticipate building facility use in deviance from the plan.

Last but not the least, the significant learnings from fire accidents need to feed into future design planning to prevent recurrence of similar accidents. What is needed immediately is a progressive thinking on creating a robust fire safety design that can help us in creating a safe and sustainable future. The trend of performance-based fire safety design is catching momentum. This is a positive step.