As the performance-based fire protection design approach evolves, a need has surfaced to appropriately link data, tools, and methods in characterizing risk, as well as the need to develop appropriate mitigation. Recently, Rob McFeaters, one of our fire protection consultants, attended a session at the NFPA conference in Chicago that addressed this specific concern. The session was called, “The Vulcan Initiative – A web-based platform for the Next Generation of Performance-Based Fire Protection Engineering” and was given by Dr. Alberto Alvarez and Dr. Brian Meacham of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

The presenters first explained how current fire protection code requirements treat buildings by zoning. For example, nursing homes, child daycare facilities, detox facilities, and hospitals are all treated the same under fire codes. However, the performance-based design approach is centered on “building-occupant needs”. During the session, an example of this was presented using a case study where a computer chip manufacturer experienced a fire in a furnace. The prescribed protection controlled and suppressed the fire as planned. However, the resulting smoke damage and water damage caused a complete loss of all product at the facility, as well as several weeks of downtime while the area was sanitized. This was a major expense to the manufacturer. The important point from this example was that the fire protection system was designed for a certain occupancy, but not for the particular need of the client. The system was a success from a fire protection standpoint, since it suppressed the fire, however, it did not serve the building user’s needs since the suppression resulted in major financial loss.

The presenters went on to explain that the transition to a more “building-occupant needs”, performance-based design approach to fire protection requires input from architects, authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ), fire protection engineers, and other stakeholders. Each group has a different primary goal that they must achieve in order for a fire protection solution to be acceptable. The need for all groups to communicate is essential for performance-based design success. The Vulcan Initiative is proposed as the platform to achieve a high level of collaboration between interested parties. The initiative attempts to be an open-source fire protection resource that houses test data, design information, and other information that could be used at each step of the design process. The end goal is to create a hub that the architect, AHJ, building user, fire protection engineer, and all other interested parties can use to collaborate and produce a more effective fire protection design.

The Vulcan Initiative has been funded by a grant from NIST and is currently under development.

By Jeff Harrington, CEO and Founder of Harrington Group, Inc.