The Sustainability Question
The complex interactions of fire and environmental sustainability.
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2009
The Fire Protection Research Foundation’s recent 25th anniversary symposium, "Fire Protection and Safety: Preparing for the Next 25 Years," highlighted the emerging importance of the intersection of fire protection and environmental sustainability in decision-making for the built environment. At the symposium, stakeholders identified a broad range of key issues: water shortages, restrictions on chemical substances used to retard or suppress the development of fire, the shortage of naturally occurring materials with inherent fire protection features, new hazards introduced by alternative energy-based systems.
Much of the current conversation around these topics seems to focus on the negative aspects of integrating fire protection into the sustainability equation. However, our keynote speaker, Shere Abbott, director of the Center for Science and Practice of Sustainability at the University of Texas, provided a different perspective that is often lost in the detailed discussions of fire protection systems and their isolated interaction with the environment. That perspective is simply stated: unrestricted growth and development of unwanted fire has a catastrophic impact on our environment.
How do we come to grips in a systematic way with the various and complex interactions of fire and environmental sustainability? One possibility is the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED system—the acronym stands for "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design"—which is a grading scheme intended to focus the design community’s attention on the sustainability impact of building design and product features. Few fire protection features are explicitly addressed in this system, which attempts to assess sustainability systematically, in the context of a single building. The "grades" assigned those features are subjective, but they can be a first step in integrating fire protection into "green" design.
Other types of "green" rating systems are also emerging. For example, organizations such as Underwriters Laboratories and Green Seal have developed certification services to validate manufacturers’ sustainability claims and product performance against sustainability standards. These services are not fire-protection-specific, but they can be applied to fire protection products on an individual basis. Conceivably, an integrated environmental assessment could then be made of various "packages" or approaches used to meet building fire safety goals.
However, there is one major weakness in this approach toward assessing the "green" content of building designs and systems: there is no explicit means to account for the sustainability impact of doing nothing about fire protection. In other words, if we replaced fire-resistant construction with conventional walls and floor systems or if we removed suppression systems from buildings, how would the LEED system or other green rating systems account for the substantially increased impact on the environment resulting from building component damage in the event of fire? How would those systems account for the consequent replacement, hazardous waste production, reduced air quality, contaminated groundwater, and other negative effects of unwanted fire? For a generation that has not experienced the major urban fires that took place before modern fire protection practices, the recent (and frequent) emergence of wildland fires at the urban interface is a graphic illustration of the impact of unwanted and uncontrolled fire on the environment.
The research agenda that grew out of our symposium identified the tension between fire and sustainability as a major emerging issue for us to address. So far, we have done that through individual projects: protecting against the hazards of alternative energy sources, removing the barriers to the use of water-conserving home fire sprinklers, ensuring effective fire protection system performance in the presence of energy-conserving fans, and others. But we face a broader challenge: to enter into the sustainability dialogue with scientifically based, system-wide assessments of the influence of fire and fire protection systems, so that, in the end, fire safety is not compromised in our movement toward a more sustainable environment.
Kathleen H. Almand, P.E. , FSFPE, is the executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.