So, as the month of October winds down, we near the end of Fire Prevention Month … 31 days when homeowners are supposed to check their smoke detectors, students practice stop-drop-and roll, and office workers practice dousing flames with a fire extinguisher.

And that’s a good thing.  We all need to focus at times on simple steps we can take to reduce the risk of fire.

When it comes to building design and construction, we would argue that architects need to get passive about fire protection.  Sounds contradictory, right?  Let us explain.

Most often, people think of fire prevention in the sense of Active systems – things like alarms, sprinklers and those fire extinguishers people practiced with this month.  Without a doubt active fire prevention is one half the overall structural protection package.

Passive Fire Protection is equally critical to save lives

Passive products and assemblies can be put into buildings to also slow the spread of fire – such as fire-rated doors, walls and so on. An often forgotten passive system is the expansion joint fire barrier, which can also play a critical role in helping building occupants safely evacuate a structure by compartmentalizing heat, smoke and flame.


When it comes down to it, smoke is the biggest killer in fire.  According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), death certificates show a 2-to-1 ratio of smoke inhalation to burns for fire deaths overall, while fire incident reports show an 8-to-1 ratio for home fire deaths.  A fire can produce an enormous amount of positive air pressure.  Smoke can quickly shoot through holes and gaps to flood adjacent rooms, corridors and floors, which in turn hinders occupant evacuation.

So, to reiterate, expansion joint fire barriers, when installed and sealed properly, help to slow the spread of smoke, heat and flame.  The purpose is to buy critical time for occupants to evacuate safely.

Creating compartments to contain fire

Large ocean-going vessels provide an excellent analogy for fire prevention.  Anyone who saw the movie Titanic knows the ship sank. When all the investigations were completed, the iceberg didn’t “sink” the Titanic – it was sea water that breached the bulkheads … and as more and more water flooded compartment after compartment, it overwhelmed the ship’s buoyancy.

The goal of ship designers is to put in water-tight bulkheads that slow the flow of water, and maintain compartments of air to keep the ship afloat.

Architects recreate this concept of compartmentalizing spaces within a building to keep them segregated from each other in the event of fire. Instead of bulkheads, UL Rated assemblies - such as concrete or composite horizontal decks, gypsum wall assemblies, rated shaft walls, etc. are used to protect building occupants.  And expansion joints are filled with rated fire barriers.

These passive assemblies are every bit as important as sprinklers and fire extinguishers to help keep people alive and unharmed.

Additional Resources

To learn more, download our Active vs Passive Fire Protection white paper, which covers the basic types of active and passive fire protection systems, products and assemblies, and wraps up with a primer on expansion joint fire barriers.

Download White Paper