From the Technical Director:
Achieving the Right Balance – Safety and the Cost of Safety
By Morgan J. Hurley, P.E., FSFPE | Fire Protection Engineering
Fires exact a toll on society. These costs come from two sources. One
source, which is the most easily recognized, is the losses that occur
during and following a fire. The second source is not as apparent: the
cost of providing fire protection in buildings. When designing fire
safety in buildings, it is necessary to balance the cost of providing
fire safety with the potential costs associated with fire losses.
Losses that are suffered in fires can be
grouped into two categories: direct losses and indirect losses. Direct
losses encompass the replacement costs of things that are damaged by
fire. This includes damages to the building itself (whether repair or
replacement is necessary) and the value of things that are located
within a building that are damaged or destroyed by fire. Direct losses
also include deaths and injuries to people from fire; the "value” of
these losses is inherently difficult to quantify, but necessary to
Indirect costs include the monetary value of losses
that occur as a result of a fire but are not associated with the repair
or replacement of a building or its contents. An example of indirect
costs is the cost of obtaining alternate building space and lost revenue
due to business interruption.
In the United States, direct fire losses were
$14.2 billion in 2009. Indirect costs added another $1.9 billion.1
Fire safety itself has attendant costs.
These include the costs associated with providing fire safety measures
in buildings, such as fire suppression systems, fire detection and alarm
systems, smoke control systems, and fire-resistant construction. In
2009, the cost of fire safety in buildings was estimated to be $41.6
billion.1 Other fire-related costs include the costs of providing firefighting services and the costs of providing insurance.
All human endeavors bring with them some
risk, and it is not possible to achieve an environment entirely free of
risk. Buildings are no exception. A building could be constructed
entirely using noncombustible materials, but once furnishings,
electrical and mechanical systems and people are brought into a
building, they bring with them some fire risk. It is possible to
minimize this risk by providing fire safety systems, but it is not
possible to completely eliminate it.
The costs of fire (direct and indirect)
are balanced by the costs of providing fire safety. As additional fire
safety is provided in a building, the costs of fire would decrease.
However, there is a point of diminishing returns, where additional
expenditures on fire safety are not worthwhile.
The challenge is to find this balance
point between fire safety and the cost of fire safety. While fire
protection engineers can assist greatly with finding this balance, the
choice is not left to fire protection engineers (or individual
regulatory officials for that matter). Instead, society determines where
this balance occurs. And, society values different risks differently.
Society generally will not tolerate large fires that result in the total
loss of a building that serves an important function in the community.
Similarly, society will not tolerate a fire that results in a large loss
What further challenges finding the balance between safety and the
cost of safety is that society does not explicitly state the amount of
loss that it can tolerate. Society’s loss tolerance is reflected, to a
certain degree, in the building and fire codes that it adopts. However,
case law also plays a role, as society may find some losses that occur
in fully code-compliant buildings to be unacceptable.
So, what does this mean for designers of
fire safety in buildings? For most buildings, code compliance is
sufficient, since code-compliant buildings provide a level of safety
that has been accepted by society. However, fire protection engineers
should consider risks that might not be typical for a given building
type, and design appropriate mitigation approaches accordingly.
Similarly, whenever the equivalency provision in a code or standard is
used, the engineer should be certain that the alternate approach
provides a solution that is at least as safe as that required by the
prescriptive provision for which equivalency is sought.
Hall, J. "The Total Cost of Fire in the
United States,” National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2012.
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