Fire Safety and Security

Courtesy, American Wood Council, Leesburg, VA

Courtesy, American Wood Council, Leesburg, VA

Fire Safety and Security

British Columbia has been a leader in North America in the implementation of building regulations that permit the greater use of wood construction. Advanced technology has produced a new generation of wood building products, systems and techniques which are being used in increasing numbers and types of buildings. Whether a modified post-and-beam technique based on engineered wood products, mass timber construction, or a modified light-frame system using traditional wood products, we are seeing great possibilities for wood. The building and design community has embraced wood use in new building types, including larger and taller structures, requiring building and fire officials to expand their knowledge of the world’s oldest – and newest – building material: wood.


The National Building Code of Canada (NBCC)1 defines fire safety under Objective OS1: “an objective of this code is to limit the probability that as a result of the design or construction of the building, a person in or adjacent to a building will be exposed to an unacceptable risk of injury due to fire.”

In simpler terms, fire safety is the reduction of the potential for harm to life as a result of fire in buildings. Although the potential for being killed or injured in a fire cannot be completely eliminated, fire safety in a building can be achieved through proven building design features intended to minimize the risk of harm to people from fire to the greatest extent possible.

Designing a building to ensure minimal risk or to meet a prescribed level of safety from fire is more complex than just the simple consideration of what building materials will be used in construction of the building, since all building materials are affected by fire. Many factors must be considered including the use of the building, the number of occupants, how easily they can exit the building in case of a fire and how a fire can be contained.

The NBCC only regulates those elements which are part of the building construction. The building contents found in any building are typically not regulated by the NBCC, but in some cases they are regulated by the National Fire Code of Canada (NFCC)2.

The classification of buildings or parts of buildings according to their intended use accounts for:

  • the quantity and type of combustible contents likely to be present (potential fire load);
  • the number of persons likely to be exposed to the threat of fire;
  • the area of the building; and,
  • the height of the building.

This classification is the starting point in determining which fire safety requirements apply to a particular building.

Classification dictates:

  • the type of building construction;
  • the level of fire protection; and,
  • the degree of structural protection against fire spread between parts of a building that are used for different purposes.

Even materials that do not sustain fire do not guarantee the safety of a structure. Steel, for instance, quickly loses its strength when heated and its yield point decreases significantly as it absorbs heat, endangering the stability of the structure (Figure 1). An unprotected, conventional cold-formed steel joist floor system will fail in less than 10 minutes under standard laboratory fire exposure test methods, while an unprotected, conventional wood joist floor system can last up to 15 minutes.

Even reinforced concrete is not immune to fire. Though concrete structures have rarely collapsed, concrete will spall under elevated temperatures, exposing the steel reinforcement and weakening structural members.

Structural Systems In Wood

These two types of construction have important differences that relate to:

  • the size of the wood members;
  • the methods of assembly; and,
  • the degree to which they must be combined with other materials to achieve fire-safe conditions.

The type of construction currently permitted by the NBCC depends on building size (height and area) and use (occupancy classification).

Though the structure of a modern wood-frame building may be made entirely of wood, protective finishes such as gypsum board can be applied to the framing to provide structural fire resistance where required.

Wood-frame assemblies can economically and easily be made to resist the effects of a fire for up to two hours through the use of appropriate materials and construction methods. Experience has proven this construction system to be reliable and safe. Various configurations of wood-frame floor and wall assemblies have been tested and based on the test results, have been assigned varying degrees of fire resistance from 45 minutes to two hours.

Mass Timber Construction

Large dimension wood sections have an inherent resistance to fire. Wood burns slowly at approximately 0.6 mm/minute. The char created on the wood surface as it burns helps protect and
insulate the unburnt wood that remains below the charred layer. The unburnt portion of a thick member retains at least 85 to 90 percent of its strength. Hence, a wood member with a large cross-section can burn for a significant amount of time before its size is reduced to the point where it can no longer carry its load. The most familiar form of mass timber construction is “heavy timber construction.”

Heavy Timber Construction

Heavy timber construction is defined in the NBCC as: “a type of combustible construction in which a degree of fire safety is attained by placing limitations on the sizes of wood structural members and on thickness and composition of wood floors and roofs and by the avoidance of concealed spaces under floors and roofs.”

Both solid-sawn and glue-laminated members qualify under this definition provided they have the minimum sizes. To satisfy heavy timber requirements, wood elements must be arranged in solid masses with essentially smooth, flat surfaces to avoid thin sections and sharp projections. This is to reduce to a minimum the surfaces which can be exposed to fire.

The NBCC recognizes the inherent fire resistance of heavy timber construction, and allows the unprotected wood members, including floor and roof decks, that meet the minimum size requirements to be used both where a 45-minute fire-resistance rating is required and in many noncombustible buildings. Other forms of mass timber construction are being developed, including cross-laminated timber (CLT). More information about such systems will become available over time. More detailed information about fire safety can be found in CWC’s Fire Safety Design in Buildings.3

Other Related References

1. Fitzgerald, Robert W., Fundamentals of Fire Safe Building Design, Fire Protection Handbook, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 1997.

2. Watts, J.M. (Jr); Systems Approach to Fire-Safe Building Design, Fire Protection Handbook, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2008.

3. Rowe, W.D.; Assessing the Risk of Fire Systemically ASTM STP 762, Fire Risk Assessment, American Society for Testing and Materials, West Conshohocken, PA, 1982.