Accurate Review


IBC/IFC Fire Protection

An Accurate Review White Paper, Spring 2017


By:  Kevin Walsh, NCARB



A Brief Introduction to IBC/IFC Fire Protection


As architects, code officials, and plan reviewers, it is critical to understand the fire protection requirements of the local adopted building code. For most, the adopted building code is a version of the International Building Code (IBC) and International Fire Code (IFC) and IBC defines fire protection systems as “Approved devices, equipment and systems or combinations of systems used to detect a fire, activate an alarm, extinguish or control a fire, control or manage smoke and products of a fire or any combination thereof.” This is a broad definition, but knowing what, when, and where specific systems are required is vital to assuring compliance to the locally adopted codes. These requirements are based on occupancy use group, building occupancy, the size of the building, and various other factors.  The goal of this paper is to provide a brief introduction to fire protection systems in the IBC, focusing on the general use of fire sprinkler systems and explicit examples to illustrate that there are many intricacies of the fire protection requirements of the IBC and International Fire Code (IFC).


One of most widely used form of fire protection is the fire sprinkler. Sprinkler systems are required based on a combination of construction type, occupancy use group, occupant load, and the proposed area and height of the building.  Sprinkler systems have an added cost to not only the construction of the project, but also in the life cycle costs considering the necessary routine maintenance and testing. With that being said, the IBC allows provisions to avoid the need for sprinkler system in various cases by allowing the design professional to “break-up” the fire areas by means of fire barrier and fire walls. A fire barrier separates two fire areas by extending a fire rated wall from the floor to the underside of the roof deck or floor deck above. Fire Barriers do not have structural collapse criteria. Fire walls, on the other hand, essentially create two separate buildings by providing a fire rated wall that extends past the roof deck above. A fire wall must allow for two independent structures in the event of a structural failure on either side of the fire wall. Use of fire barriers and fire walls, when used appropriately, could eliminate the need for a sprinkler system in a building. It is important to understand the difference between the fire barriers and fire walls in order to verify the sprinkler requirements of a building.


When determining the need for and creating different fire areas, it is imperative to refer to Tables 508.4 and 707.3.10 of the IBC to determine the necessary separation of occupancies, unless the building is determined to be non-separated uses. In separated uses, it is possible to utilize fire rated assemblies to create specific fire areas that require sprinklers rather than the whole building.


Now consider the different occupancy groups. Each use-group has different criteria on area, occupant load, and fire ratings. The requirements of some use groups, especially Storage and Factory uses, are dependent on the specific intention of the space. In order to evaluate the requirement of a storage space for example, the plan reviewer or code official needs to know what will be stored in the space and how high will it be stored. Or, in the case of vehicular tires, the volume of tire material is needed to determine the fire protection requirements of the space.


In order to verify fire protection requirements and restrictions, the respective standards need to be reviewed and followed. For example, fire alarms in the IBC are referenced to NFPA 72 and standpipes to NFPA 14. There are multiple standards referenced for sprinkler systems, but the three main standards are NFPA 13 Installation of Sprinkler Systems, NFPA 13R Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Low-Rise Residential Occupancies, and NFPA 13D Sprinkler Systems for One and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes. Knowing the difference amongst these standards and understanding how they can be mixed in specific situations is critical to the design professional and the plan reviewer. An example once illustrated by the International Code Council demonstrated mixed sprinkler systems may be possible in a “pedestal” construction project where a four-story R-occupancy is constructed atop a ground level parking garage. Certain provisions such as Type 1A Construction on the garage level with a 3-hour horizontal assembly are required, but this allows the R-occupancy to be built atop the garage almost as if it were built on grade. And to the original point of this particular example, the first floor can adhere to NFPA 13 for the sprinkler system and the residential occupancy to NFPA 13R, which has the potential for significant cost savings. Other requirements need to be met, but it is possible.


Sprinkler systems, along with other fire protection systems, have been proven to save lives and protect property. These systems come at a cost, and in some instances, this added expense is unnecessary. There are numerous trade-offs through the IBC when utilizing a fire sprinkler system, such as increased allowable areas and less restrictive egress requirements. The design professional needs to understand the adopted codes and standards to effectively weigh the various options of satisfying the fire protection requirements of the IBC and plan reviewer must equally understand the codes and standards to verify the proposed designs will be safe structures.



International Building Code and International Fire Code are copywritten codes of the International Code Council.


NFPA 13,13D, 14, and 72 are copy-written standards of the National Fire Protection Association




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