Despite advances in building and the materials used, fire will always remain a threat so what can be done to minimize the damage and potential loss of life. As well as alarm systems and sprinkler systems, compartmentation is an element of passive fire protection that keeps a fire contained in one place, drastically slowing down and limiting the spread of fire and smoke and therefore damage to a building. It is a vital part of fire safety that if implemented correctly works to protect escape routes, giving all occupants a better chance to escape and gives the emergency services more time.
Compartmentation is the act of subdividing a building into smaller compartments using fire resistant materials in order to control/slow the spread of fire and create more manageable areas of risk. The fire resistant materials used must prevent the passage of fire between individual compartments for a certain amount of time giving the fire service more time to arrive and efficiently extinguish the fire. This is done through the use of fire resistant materials and methods such as fire doors, cavity barriers in voids above false ceilings, looking at the intumescent materials used throughout the building, and ensuring that any penetrations that may have compromised the integrity of a wall are filled.
Larger and/or more complex buildings such as blocks of flats rely even more on fire compartmentation. Each flat is usually treated as its own compartment to limit the risk of fire spreading between flats. Dependent on the size of the flat the rooms within it may also be treated as separate compartments in order to protect the occupants means of escape. It is also important to consider the needs of any occupant who may have mobility issues that may not be able to use the stairs without aid, especially since it is not advised to use a lift as an emergency escape route during a fire something that compartmentation can help with. By successfully using passive fire protection methods including compartmentation refuge areas can be created to protect anyone unable to be safely evacuated in the early stages of a fire.
Compartmentation is an initial investment that can have very little maintenance requirements, however, it can take only seconds for fire to spread through even the smallest of holes meaning it is important to maintain and keep the integrity of any fire stopping materials used in tact. Any weakness can compromise the success of compartmentation, for example, any work done on the floors or walls that involves things such as drilling may change the integrity of that surface, with even the smallest of holes if not repaired correctly potentially having life threatening consequences. A common and more obvious sign of compartmentation within a building is the presence of a fire door. Fire doors could be one of the most critical elements of compartmentation as they lead directly to an escape route and cover what is hopefully the largest gap in a wall. However, they also get used on a day to day basis and are often wedged open and neglected creating a big weakness and in the event of a fire possibly rendering compartmentation efforts useless.