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Fires in Buildings

Mario FONTANA Mario Fontana, received his

Professor diploma in civil engineering and
his PhD from ETH. He has
Swiss Federal Institute of worked as a structural and fire
Technology ETH protection engineer. In 1992 he
Zurich, Switzerland was appointed professor of structural engineering at ETH

Fires in buildings may have enormous consequences for safety and economy. Therefore the fire
design of structures is an important factor for public safety and the design of buildings. In recent
years fire safety engineering has become a new discipline integrating all aspects of fire safety
(structural, technical, organisational), into the design of buildings. With regard to structural fire
design, in addition to good construction practice, safe and easily applicable design methods are
needed both for structural members and complete structures subjected to fire. This paper gives an
overview of fire action, fire safety concepts, structural fire design as well as recent developments
and the main trends in fire safety engineering.

Keywords: Fires in buildings, fire action, fire safety concepts, structural fire design, fire safety
engineering, prescriptive- and performance-based fire safety design.

1. Introduction
Some decades ago fire safety concentrated on performing fire tests on structural elements in
furnaces. However during the last several decades fire safety has attracted the interest of engineers
and scientists all over the world. Fire safety science still includes fire testing, but now has a main
focus on fundamental research into fire action starting from the combustion process, fire
development and fire spread through the building, as well as the mechanical and thermal behaviour
of materials, their reaction to fire and the performance of the building structure during the fire.
Technical measures for fire protection have been developed and human behaviour in the case of a
fire has been studied.
Based on such fundamental knowledge, advanced calculation methods have been developed using
analytical and numerical tools. The computer simulation of fire and smoke development and their
spread through a building as well as the heating and mechanical behaviour of structural elements
and complete structures have become possible during the last few years. Even models to simulate
human behaviour and escape exist.
Fire is an extreme event that rarely or never occurs during the lifetime of a building. However, once
it occurs it has huge consequences for the safety of the building, its occupants and the rescue teams
and can lead to large financial losses. A growing understanding of the nature of fire, as well as
concepts and measures to control fire has allowed the reduction of the number of disastrous fires to
an acceptable level. Statistical data show that in developed countries the level of fire safety is
steadily increasing. This can be seen from the decreasing number of fire fatalities per year and
100,000 inhabitants in most industrialised countries [1].

Deaths per 100,000 person

1.5 Germany



















Table 1 Fire fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants. The number is decreasing for most countries.
In the past, fire safety concepts focused on structural and some organisational measures, whereas
today they include a large proportion of sophisticated technical measures like sprinkler and water
mist systems, smoke detection systems and smoke evacuation systems. About 80% of fire fatalities
occur in dwellings (at home) mostly as single fatalities. In Switzerland structural measures are at a
very high level, while technical measures like smoke detection or even sprinklers are very unusual
in dwellings.

2. Fire action
Fire can only start if combustible material, oxygen and an ignition source are present. The
combustion process releases heat energy, gases and smoke. While the gases and the smoke are the
main killers in a fire (approx. 80% of fire fatalities are due to smoke), heat is the primary reason for
the damage to the structure of a building. The knowledge of the time-temperature development
during a fire in a building is therefore important when analysing the structural behaviour. To
describe the fire action it must be simplified in a model. Several nominal fire curves have been
proposed in codes to be used in the design process. The most frequently applied curves are the ISO
834 fire curve, the ASTM E119 curve or more recently the hydrocarbon and external fire curve as
given in the Eurocodes. They provide a simple relationship for the temperature of the gases in a
compartment as a function of time. They represent a fully developed fire; the significant amount of
time that sometimes elapses from the beginning of the fire to the fully developed fire is neglected.
Further, the cooling down phase of the fire is not taken into account and the nominal fire curves
increase monotonically with time.

Nominal temperature-time curves

temperature [°C]

External fire curve

Hydrocarbon curve

Standard curve ISO 834

time [min]
Figure 1 Three temperature-time curves according to Eurocode 1, Part 1-2 [2]
A more realistic model of fires is given by the parametrical fire curves, which take into account the
most important parameters for temperature development, namely:
- the type of combustible material
- the ventilation conditions in the room
- the thermal properties of the enclosures
- the fire fighting action
Parametrical fire curves can be easily calculated with formulas developed for limited boundary
conditions, as given for example in Eurocode 1, Parts 1-2, Appendix A [2].
For a more comprehensive and more detailed analysis, computer simulations may be used, e.g.
multi-room zone models or computational fluid dynamics models. With such simulations more
complicated environments and more detailed parameters can be taken into account than with the
simplified parametrical fire curves. However, employing computer simulations may be time-
consuming and costly.

3. Human behaviour in fire

Human behaviour in fire is one of the most important factors with regard to fire fatalities. Our
investigations on all 33 fires in the canton of Zurich between 1990 and 1999 involving fire fatalities
showed that most of the fatalities had a causal relation to the behaviour of the victim (smoking,
drinking, careless use of fire etc.) and only one case was related to fire spread and possibly to the
unsatisfactory application of structural measures [9]. Only in two of the 33 fires did two fatalities
occur, all other fires claiming only one victim. The designer of a building can facilitate the safe
escape of the occupants by providing escape ways such as protected corridors and staircases, as
well as safe access ways for the rescue teams. The evacuation itself can be supported by technical
measures, e.g. providing an alarm signal and a spoken message motivating the occupants to leave

the building immediately when fire breaks out. A clear layout of the building making it easy for the
occupants to find their way out, as well as (illuminated) signs to direct the occupants to safe exits
and measures to keep tenable conditions in the rooms and escape ways like smoke evacuation and
emergency illumination are important. Computer programs have been developed even to analyse
evacuation [3]. Human behaviour is a challenging interdisciplinary field of research.

4. Fire safety objectives and fire safety concepts

A knowledge of the basic behaviour of fire, occupants and buildings during a fire are an important
precondition for the development of successful fire safety concepts. Fire safety has to be regarded
as a basic requirement for buildings equal in importance to the load bearing behaviour of the
structure. The most efficient way to control the effects of fire is to establish a comprehensive fire
safety concept with adequate measures to fulfil the fire safety objectives. Depending on the type of
structure additional technical and organisational measures are needed besides the traditional
structural fire safety measures. The fire safety objectives and the most important generic fire safety
concepts are described and discussed below.

4.1 Fire safety objectives

The starting point of any efficient fire safety concept is given by the following general fire safety
- safety of occupants and fire brigade
- safety of neighbours and their goods
- limitation of financial loss (building and contents)
- protection of the environment in case of fire
Since achieving absolute safety is impossible, the level of acceptance must be quantified by the
authorities or with regard to financial losses with the owner or the insurance companies [4]. These
objectives can be reached with different generic fire safety concepts taking into account the type of
structure and occupancy.

4.2 Fire safety concepts

Fire safety concepts consist of comprehensive structural, technical and organisational measures to
fulfil the predefined fire safety objectives and acceptance criteria. The most efficient fire safety
concept is assessed by comparing different options. The criteria are the total cost of fire safety
measures and further aspects like flexibility, limitation of use, architecture etc. Depending on the
main focus of the measures the following generic concepts are distinguished.

4.2.1 Structural concept

Fire-resistant floors and walls limit the fire spread to other parts of the building. In the fire
compartment a total loss of the contents and damage to the building are accepted. The structural
concept is favourable for buildings with small rooms (cell type construction). For buildings
constructed of concrete and brick no or little additional cost results. For steel and timber buildings
the cost of a structural concept can be important. However, small rooms may limit use and
flexibility, especially for occupancies like shopping centres and industries.

4.2.2 Surveillance concept

An automatic fire detection system locates the fire and alarms a nearby fire brigade. The fire
resistance of the structure can be reduced in many cases. Sometimes even unprotected steel or
timber is possible. Maintenance and regular checks of functionality are important. The concept is
well suited to small fire loads and slow fire development (as in offices and schools, etc).

4.2.3 Extinguishing concept

A sprinkler system extinguishes fires already at an early stage or keeps them low until the fire
brigade arrives. Fire resistance of the structure or the compartment walls is usually not necessary.
Yearly checks are important to reach a high availability of the system. Sprinkler systems are
suitable also for rapidly developing fires (as in industrial occupancies).

5. Structural fire design

5.1 Influence of choice of building material on the fire safety of buildings
The choice of building materials influences structural fire safety markedly. The mechanical and
thermal properties of building materials change at elevated temperatures. This change of material
properties has an important influence on the load bearing and deformation behaviour in case of fire.
Combustible building materials increase the heat release rate and the development of smoke in case
of fire. Below the fire behaviour of the most important building materials like wood, concrete,
masonry, aluminium and steel is presented in a general way.

5.2 Strength and stiffness of building materials at elevated temperatures

The strength and stiffness properties of building materials decrease at elevated temperatures. Due to
their good thermal insulation properties, timber, concrete and masonry are only influenced locally
in parts of the section close to the surface, while the inner parts of the cross-section still exhibit
good mechanical properties.

Figure 2 Decrease of strength of concrete and steel at elevated temperatures [7]

5.3 Some special aspects related to building materials

5.3.1 Wood
Wood burns at its surface, releases energy and thus contributes to fire propagation. Wood has good
insulation properties and small thermal elongations. Wood changes into charcoal at a temperature of
around 300°C thus loosing section area. For conditions similar to the ISO fire the reduction of the
section area can be described by the burning rate. The burning rate for soft wood is constant with a
value of around 0.7 mm/min.

5.3.2 Concrete
Concrete may spall close to its surface. Spalling reduces the effective cross-section and exposes the
reinforcement. The extent of spalling depends on many parameters such as the moisture content, the
density, the type of gravel, the mechanical stresses, etc. Adding polypropylene fibres (PP) has a
positive effect as the melting of the fibres reduces the vapour pressure produced by the heating of
the moisture.
The penetration of chlorine gases during a fire can lead to post-fire corrosion of the reinforcement.
High temperature gradients in concrete elements may lead to deformation, cracking and shear
failure or anchorage failure, especially where pre-stressed tendons are used which rely on direct

5.3.3 Steel
Steel heats up quickly due to its high thermal conductivity and therefore loses strength across the
whole sectional area. After the fire the original strength is mostly regained (exception: high strength
and cold formed steel, as well as high strength bolts).

5.3.4 Masonry
Masonry walls exhibit favourable fire behaviour. During the fire the thermal gradient may lead to a
deformation towards or away from the fire, which can then lead to buckling of the wall. The most
important parameters for the fire resistance of masonry walls are the depth of the wall, the type of
brick and the type of mortar. Plastering of the walls has a beneficial effect.

6. Conceptual design for fire safety

Satisfactory behaviour of structures subjected to fire is not primarily a question of the fire resistance
of the single structural members but a question of the design of the complete structure and the
detailing. By taking into account the global behaviour of the structure, the objectives of fire safety
can in many cases be met without providing a fire resistance rating of the single load bearing
members. By providing alternative load path or by activating membrane action, the structures may
survive a large fire even though the individual members do not have a special fire resistance rating.
Starting from clearly defined fire safety objectives, applying good construction practice and giving
proper consideration to the global behaviour of the building's structure are more important than the
traditional verification of building elements against standard fire [5].
Traditional fire resistance duration-times obtained from single element fire tests must not be
confused with the time a building can resist a real fire or even more importantly the time people
have to leave the building safely in case of a fire. In reality, during a fire temperatures do not accord
with standard temperature-time curves and the structure of a building does not consist simply of
independent single members. The time-temperature development depends on the actual conditions
in the building (“natural fire” see Chapter 2) and the global structural behaviour will be governed
by membrane action, alternative load transfer and thermal restraints. Instead of requiring fire
resistance requirements based on standard fire tests for isolated single members as is typical for
prescriptive codes, performance-based requirements such as “no collapse of the structure during the
fire”, or “no collapse of main elements for a given time” or even “repairability” or “no damage to
the structure” would lead to more sensible economic and safe design of structures.
Following a choice of examples of good construction practice for structures is presented as an
alternative option to traditional design using fire rated individual members. For single-storey
buildings only the horizontal fire spread needs to be limited in some cases. A fire resistance of the
roof is in general not necessary for life safety as the roof may only collapse at very high
temperature when the conditions in the fire compartment itself are no longer tenable. It is therefore
more efficient to ensure the stability of the surrounding fire compartments by means of additional
bracing than by providing a fire-resistant roof structure.
Figure 3 gives an example of good construction practice for single-storey steel buildings. The
building has bracing in every compartment and the main elements are parallel to the fire walls
avoiding problems with dilatation in case of fire.

Figure 3 Good construction practice for a single-storey steel building. Multiple bracing and main
elements parallel to fire wall.

Tensile action in composite floors or arching action in concrete flat slabs may increase the fire
resistance of such structures markedly as was demonstrated in the Cardington fire tests (Fig. 4) [6].

Figure 4 Membrane action of composite floors can increase the fire resistance time considerably [6]
Redundant systems which provide alternative load path may guarantee the stability of the building
even if some individual elements collapse during a fire. A generic example is given in Fig. 5 where
the collapse of a column will not lead to the collapse of the floor [5].

Figure 5 Generic example for alternative load path providing fire resistance of the complete
structure even with unprotected individual members which fail in case of fire

7. Robustness of fire safety measures

Today’s design practice does not consider several extreme events at the same time. Thus, fire and
earthquake or impact and fire are usually not combined. However, we know that after an earthquake
very often fires occur and the tragic event of the World Trade Centre also showed that impact and
subsequent fire may occur. Therefore, the question arises whether a subsequent fire can be regarded
as an independent extreme event, or whether it must be considered in the design of the primary
extreme event, e.g. earthquake or impact. Or how can the fire safety measures be designed, so that
they are still available after the first event has occurred. Especially in the case of exceptional
building structures, such considerations could become necessary in the future. General advice
cannot be given at the moment. Unfortunately, fire protection measures that work well in a fire test
may not be robust enough to perform satisfactorily after an exceptional mechanical action has
Partial damage or loss of fire protection of structural steel members may have an important impact
on the fire resistance of that member. The locally missing fire protection distinctly decreases the fire
resistance of the structural steel member. From a parametric study on columns [12] it is obvious that
the consequences resulting from local loss of fire protection are most important. All design methods
for calculating the fire resistance of steel structures assume a completely protected member.
However, in practice locally missing fire protection material is not unusual as is evident from Fig. 6.
The partial loss may not only occur due to impact following an extreme event, but also due to
improper application or removal in the area of connection and installations.

Figure 6 Partial loss of fire protection of steel beams in a car park

To obtain better information on the influence of missing fire protection, the behaviour of steel
columns with partial defects in the fire protection material subjected to fire was studied. A 3-D
finite element heat transfer and structural model was employed, taking into account geometrical
nonlinearities, local temperature distribution, thermal restraints and temperature-dependent material
properties. Some results of the study are given in Fig. 7 for different areas of missing fire protection
and two different cross sections. The decrease of fire resistance is important, especially for heavily
protected columns.

Figure 7 Reduction of fire resistance in function of the missing area of fire protection for IPE 240
and HEB 300 columns and different coating thickness.
The robustness of fire protection measures should therefore be taken into consideration when
performing fire design.

8. Recent developments - main trends

8.1 Prescriptive- and performance-based fire regulations
Fire regulations are still mainly prescriptive, giving detailed requirements for the structural,
technical and organisational measures which have to be applied. These codes give no detailed fire
safety objectives but assume that by fulfilling these detailed requirements an adequate level of fire
safety will be reached. In recent years however some performance-based regulations have been
established giving fire safety objectives, functional and performance requirements. The designer is
free to choose the adequate measures to fulfil the fire safety objectives. However, the designer has
to prove that his design leads to an adequate level of fire safety. Some regulations allow both
approaches and give in addition a choice between different predefined concepts, for example a
traditional structural concept and a concept using sprinkler systems or other technical measures and
reduced fire resistance requirements for the structure [13].

8.2 Fire engineering, design guides

To verify the fulfilment of the fire safety objectives in performance-based designs and to reach a
consensus in the discussion between designer and authorities, design guidelines must be established,
which represent the state of the art in fire safety engineering. While for structural design and the
verification of the structural performance during a fire, well accepted and established codes like the
fire parts of the Eurocodes exist, in other areas like fire and smoke simulation guidelines are still a
long way from general acceptance.

8.3 Risk assessment

High quality and thus credible risk assessment relies on system identification and the three main
components, namely exposure (fire hazard), vulnerability (damage potential) and robustness (limit
of spread of the fire). For the assessment of fire risk many methods have been developed over the
last few years. They start from easy applicable, rapid risk assessment methods like the SIA
Documentation 81 [8] to the very complex application of Bayesian probabilistic nets [9], which are
a very strong tool in quantified risk assessment. Bayesian probabilistic nets facilitate the joint
consideration of frequentistic information, e.g. on failure rate data together with partly or fully
subjective probabilities. They permit the utilisation of structural, technical, human and
organisational components. To expand the database on fire a huge survey of 40,000 fires which
occurred in Switzerland over a period of 10 years was performed [10]. In addition, during the years
1966 to 1969 values of fire load densities were investigated by a group of students under the
guidance of the Swiss Fire Prevention Association, which can be found in [8] and [11], Appendix 7a.
The rapid change of material used for goods and buildings makes it now necessary to review this
data and to perform a new investigation on fire load densities. It is planned to carry out this study
until the end of this year, visiting over 100 industrial and trade occupancies all over Switzerland.

9. Education and dissemination of knowledge

It is the goal of fire safety engineering to become a fully accepted engineering discipline. To reach
this goal, engineering curricula in fire safety engineering need to be further developed and
harmonised. There exist already well accepted university courses in many countries leading to a
master's degree in fire safety engineering. However, especially in Europe, a harmonised fire safety
engineering education would be beneficial to avoid a barrier to trade. Even though fire burns in the
same way all over the world according to the laws of physics, fire regulations are still national and
based on national experience and preferences. Harmonised design codes like the Eurocode,
internationally operating engineering companies and the global exchange of research findings,
experience and education would be helpful in preventing the development of national-oriented
design systems. A European master's course in fire safety engineering organised as a joint venture
by several important technical universities throughout Europe could help to reach the goal of
international acceptance of fire safety engineering, while acquainting each student with the local
regulations. Moreover, international organisations like ISO, CEN, IAFSS, SFPE, CEB, ECCS and
IABSE can contribute to the harmonisation and development of fire safety engineering as an
internationally accepted engineering discipline. It is in the interest of fire safety that fire safety
engineering develops into a major discipline, where performance-based regulations and well

educated engineers seek the benefit of society by providing fire safety and flexible, economically
designed buildings.

10. Conclusions
Fires in buildings can be assessed by engineering methods on a scientific basis. Fire safety
engineering integrates all aspects of fire safety (fire action, structures, human behaviour etc.) and all
type of measures (structural, technical, organisational). By combining performance-based codes and
fire safety engineering safe and efficient fire safety concept can be developed. Fire safety
engineering is still a young discipline and education and dissemination of knowledge is important
for its further development.

11. References
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[2] European Committee for Standardisation (CEN), prEN1991-1.2, Eurocode 1: Actions on
structures Part 1.2: General actions – Actions on structures exposed to fire, CEN, Brussels,
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Response to Exit Congestion”, Proceedings of the 6th International Symposium IAFSS, ISBN
0925223255, pp. 1041 – 1052, Poitier, 1999
[4] FABER M.H., KÜBLER O., FONTANA M., KNOBLOCH M., Failure Consequences and
Reliability Acceptance Criteria for Exceptional Building Structures, IBK Report Nr. 285, vdf
Hochschulverlag, Zurich, 2004.
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practice for steel structures subjected to fire], Stahlbau, Vol. 65, No. 2, 1996, pp 60-63, Ernst
und Sohn, Berlin 1996
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Melbourne, 1997.
[7] European Committee for Standardisation (CEN), ENV1993-1-2, Eurocode 3: Design of steel
structures Part 1-2: Structural Fire Design, CEN, Brussels, 1996.
[8] SIA Dokumentation 81, Brandrisikobewertung, [Fire risk assessment] Schweizerischer
Ingenieur- und Architektenverein, Postfach 8039 Zürich, 1984.
[9] MAAG T., Risikobasierte Beurteilung der Personensicherheit von Wohnbauten im Brandfall
unter Verwendung von Bayes’schen Netzen, [A risk based approach to life safety in dwellings
during a fire using Bayesian networks] 2004, Dissertation ETH Zürich Nr. 15366, ISBN 3-
7281-2945-3 Zürich, 2004.
[10] FONTANA M., FAVRE J.P., FETZ C., “A survey of 40’000 Building fires in Switzerland",
Journal for Fire Safety Science 32, pp. 137 – 158, Elsevier Science, London, 1999.
[11] Fire Engineering Guidelines, Fire Code Reform Centre Ltd, Sydney, ISBN 0733704549,
Sydney 1996.
[12] FONTANA M., KNOBLOCH M., “Fire Resistance of Steel Columns with Partial Loss of Fire
Protection”, Proceedings of the IABSE Symposium Metropolitan Habitats and Infrastructure
Shanghai, pp. 352-354, IABSE, Zurich, 2004.
[13] Schweizerische Brandschutzvorschriften [Swiss Fire Regulations], 2003, Vereinigung
Kantonaler Feuerversicherungen, VKF, Bundesgasse 20, Bern, 2005