Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2018.

EFFECTing Change

Users of NFPA’s facade fire risk assessment tool praise its ability to simplify a complex and challenging issue


June 14 marks the one-year anniversary of London’s Grenfell Tower fire, Britain’s deadliest blaze since World War II. Seventy-one people died in the fire, which spread rapidly up and around the sides of a residential high-rise that was sheathed in combustible plastics.

In response to the incident, in August NFPA released a tool for users to help understand the United States code requirements for exterior walls containing combustible components, including how and when to use NFPA 285, Fire Test Method for Evaluation of Fire Propagation Characteristics of Non-Load-Bearing Wall Assemblies Containing Combustible Components.

In February, NFPA released a more widely adoptable tool, the Exterior Facade Fire Evaluation and Comparison Tool (EFFECT™), for users worldwide to determine which buildings in a particular set are at the highest risk for fires involving combustible exterior wall components. Both tools and other NFPA resources on exterior wall fire safety can be found on online.

In April, a user of EFFECT, Reem Madkour, who works in the United Arab Emirates as a senior consultant for the global engineering company WSP, answered questions for NFPA Journal about his experiences with combustible exterior wall components and using the tool. Over the last several years, the UAE—the city of Dubai, in particular—has experienced major fires involving facades on high-rise buildings, and WSP has worked closely with developers and UAE Civil Defence authorities in the region to explore the problem.

Why did you start using EFFECT?

With the introduction of the UAE Fire and Life Safety Code in 2011–12 and similar legislation in other countries in the region, awareness of the dangers of combustible cladding has become a focus in our industry. Consequently, facade fire safety has dramatically improved in subsequent construction. However, the issue of the performance of pre-existing building stock has been the subject of much debate. For several years we have been conducting our own risk quantification studies of buildings and calling for a common process.

And EFFECT is a step toward achieving that common process?

Yes, EFFECT is a great tool to further the conversation of combustible cladding risk mitigation. Cladding replacement is invasive and expensive and it can be challenging to highlight existing risks and incentivize building owners to invest in addressing these issues. EFFECT is an easy, and arguably proactive, way to input data about a building and get a clear and concise rating that is unbiased.

What value have you found in the tool?

The tool provides is a quick, easy, common, and comparable method of prioritizing buildings within a portfolio to highlight potential fire and life safety risks. Combined with our past experiences and wealth of technical knowledge of global codes and standards, the tool provides us with a fuller picture for input on a project-by-project basis. … Our job as consultants is to take information about facade systems and fire and life safety systems and generate a recommended course of action.

Was there anything that surprised you about the tool when you first used it?

It isn’t too difficult to land on an “E” rating—this essentially says the systems are not acceptable until the risk is reduced. We ran the tool on some conceptual buildings and if you have combustible cladding and a source of ignition you can quickly get to an E rating. We were surprised and pleased with how unequivocal the rating and recommendation were. As consultants, we are sympathetic to the impacts our recommendations can have on clients, so it’s nice to have an unsympathetic tool to deliver what may be considered “bad news.”

What is important to remember with existing buildings is that updating them to achieve full code compliance with updated building codes may not be possible or practical. However, a more realistic approach to significantly reduce existing risk is still superior to the “do nothing” alternative. This tool also helps in that process by highlighting risk areas that can be specifically targeted.

How does the tool make sense of such a complex issue?

The tool reduces many of the factors that affect the potential for fire and fire spread into, essentially, yes or no questions. This greatly simplifies the process of combining all of that information into a final rating. Combustible cladding may be a smaller concern if there is no immediate source of ignition. Similarly, ignition sources reduce in significance if there is no fuel.

Who would you recommend start using EFFECT?

Building owners and consultants are probably in the best position to use and benefit from this tool. We recommend the involvement of facade and fire and life safety professionals during the analysis to ensure accurate data entry. As with any tool, the output is only as accurate as the information input into the program. Additionally, there may be unique scenarios on buildings that are not easily captured or conveyed, and a professional can help highlight those items and give outputs some context. We see this as a great first review tool. Most buildings will need a subsequent level of expert assessment following the review provided by the tool.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: XXXX