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Achieving the Right Balance – Safety and the Cost of Safety
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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 consider nonetheless.

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 of life.

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.


  1. Hall, J. "The Total Cost of Fire in the United States,” National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2012.

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