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Printers’ Challenges in Meeting Fire Codes

All printed banners, wall coverings, display booth fabrics, table skirts, tents, awnings, carpeting, window treatments, interior furnishing and vinyl-coated fabrics are required to meet flame-retardant standards for homes, offices or other assembly places (Flammable Fabrics Act, 1953). The challenges of meeting these fire standards and codes have increased with the development of new synthetic fibers and the ink applications to these fibers, which create a liability risk for the specialty printer.

By Dr. Phil Age, Associate Professor, Digital Printing, Imaging, and Web Technology, Eastern Illinois University
& Professor Jean K Dilworth, Textile and Apparel Design, Eastern Illinois University

The problem comes from the characteristics of synthetic fiber polymers. They have a high surface area to volume ratio — this means they quickly absorb large amounts of heat and ignite, forming small volatile molecules. This chain reaction increases exponentially faster than ordinary, natural fiber polymers (wood, cotton, paper or wool). Synthetic polymers, their fabrics and their frequent use fuel most workplace fires. Olefins (polypropylene), PET (polyethylene terephthalate), acrylic (acrylonitrile) are synthetic polymers made from petroleum-based chemicals that have a greater fire hazard than natural fibers.

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  • Flammability Terminology
    As an independent supplier or manufacturer, you are required to comply with federal, state and municipal fire codes. It is imperative that you learn the common terminology used in the acts, codes and fire regulations. Some of these terms are listed below.

    • Fabric: The term ‘fabric’ means any material (except fiber, filament or yarn for other than retail sale) woven, knitted, felted or otherwise produced from or in combination with any natural or synthetic fiber, film or substitute that is intended for use or may reasonably be expected to be used in any product defined in subsection (h). (Flammable Fabrics Act, 1953).
    • Flame Resistant: A term defined by American Society for Testing and Materials (1998) as “the property of a material whereby flaming combustion is prevented, terminated or inhibited, following application of a flaming or non-flaming source of ignition, with or without the subsequent removal of the ignition source. The material that is flame resistant may be a polymer, fiber or fabric.”
    • Flame Retardant Finish: A coating (finish) added to the fabric after printing that makes a fabric resistant to combustion.
    • Flammable Fabrics Act, 1953: A federal act that prohibits the sale of dangerously flammable textile products. The act is enforced by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a subdivision of the Federal Trade Commission.
    • Flame Retardant Treated Fabric: A fabric that has been chemically treated, which is incorporated into the fiber during production, added commercially after manufacturing or applied in the field — which significantly reduces a fabric’s flammability.
    • Flammability: Characteristics of a material that relate to its ease of ignition and its ability to sustain combustion.
    • Interior Furnishing: Any type of furnishing made in whole or part of fabric or related material that is intended for use in homes, offices or other assembly places (Flammable Fabrics Act, 1953).
    • Product: Any article of apparel or interior furnishing (Flammable Fabric Act, 1953).
    • Related Materials: Paper, plastic, rubber, synthetic film or synthetic foam that is intended for use or which may reasonably be expected to be used in any product.

    Fire Codes, Testing Standards and Regulations
    All public meeting places must comply with national, state and municipal fire codes. As most codes and regulations, they are continuously revised and amended to be more inclusive of new materials and products. Fire codes, laws and regulations are created in conjunction with the National Fire Protection Association, the American Society for Testing Materials and regional agencies, such as Illinois Chicago Fire Department, California State Fire Marshal and the California Orange County Fire Authority.

    The first national fire codes were passed by Congress in 1953 as a result of several deaths involving clothing in 1940s and 1950s. As early as 1945, California’s state legislature passed a law forbidding the sale of clothing fabrics that were more flammable than cotton cloth (Segal, 1968). The federal standards were established by the Commerce Department and later by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) an independent, federal regulatory agency established in 1972. The agency is charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks from more than 15,000 types of consumer products, including those listed in the Flammable Fabrics Act of 1953. This act was implemented to protect the public from unreasonable fire risks that could lead to death, injury or significant property damage. CPSC, with the state and local fire marshals, is responsible for enforcement. For example, the Chicago fire marshal and the safety coordinator for Chicago’s McCormick Place are responsible for the enforcement of all fire codes at the convention facility.

    With the rapid expansion and use of digitally printed textiles in public, private, exterior and interior settings, it is important to comply with the standards and codes. The list below of fire codes, testing standards and regulations is not an exclusive list, but the most commonly cited.

    NFPA 701 (National Fire Protection Association): This is a test for single-layer and multilayer fabric assemblies although large-scale tests are maintained for multilayer assemblies involving coated blackout linings. This test was developed to address the problem presented by multilayer assemblies, which could not be addressed by procedures from NFPA’s 1996 edition. The 2004 edition cites test method 1 is not applicable for plastic blinds and multi-layered fabrics. Test method 1 applies to fabrics and other materials used in curtains, draperies or window treatments. Vinyl-coated blackout linings will be tested under test method 2. The purpose of test method 1 and 2 is to assess the flame propagation in an area that is beyond the area exposed to the ignition source.

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    NFPA 265: NFPA 265 is a test method that determines the contribution of textile wall coverings, where such materials constitute the exposed interior surfaces of buildings and demountable, full-height partitions used in open building interiors. This test method is not an evaluation of fire endurance for assemblies, nor is it used to evaluate the effect of fires originating within a wall assembly, floor or ceiling finishes or lower-than-ceiling-height, freestanding, prefabricated panel furniture systems.

    California Fire Code and Regulations

    California State Fire Marshall’s Section 13115 Health and Safety Code:

    • People may not gather in any tent, awning or other fabric enclosure unless all materials are nonflammable material or are treated and maintained in a flame-retardant condition. This subdivision shall not apply to tents used to conduct committal services on the grounds of a cemetery, tents, awnings or other fabric enclosures erected and used within a sound stage or other similar structural enclosures that are equipped with an overhead, automatic sprinkler system.
    • Section 13115 (b): It is illegal for any person to sell any tent designed and intended for use for occupancy of less than 10 persons unless the tent is made from flame-retardant fabrics or materials approved by the state fire marshal. All tents manufactured in this state will be flame retardant and labeled in a manner specified by the state fire marshal. Any tent manufacturers in this state that fail to use flame-retardant fabrics or materials — or fail to label them as specified by the state fire marshal — will be strictly liable for any damage that occurs because of a this section violation.
    • Section 13115 (c): “Flame retardant,” as used in this section, means a fabric or material resistant to fire to the extent that it will successfully withstand regular fire-resistive tests adopted and enforced by the state fire marshal. (California Health and Safety Code 13115)

    California Technical Bulletins

    • Technical Bulletin 116: The requirements, test procedures and apparatus for fire-retardant tests of upholstered furniture
    • Technical Bulletin 117: The requirements, test procedure and apparatus for testing the fire-retardant resilience of filling materials used in upholstered furniture. It mandates all furniture sold in California meet the requirements. While technical bulletin 116 is a voluntary standard for residential upholstered furniture, public spaces are required to comply with technical bulletin 117.
    • Technical Bulletin 133: Flammability test procedure for seating furniture used in public occupancies. “This procedure is designed to test seating furniture used in occupancies identified as public occupancies. These might include — but are not limited to — jails, prisons, nursing care homes, health care facilities, public auditoriums, hotels and motels.”

    American Society for Testing Materials

    • ASTM E84-98: Standard test method for surface burning characteristics of building materials. This test method compares the surface flame-spread and smoke-developed measurements. This test also is published under the following designations:
    • American National Standards Institute (2.5); National Fire Protection Association (255); Universal Building Code (8-1) (42-1); and Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (723).

    Meeting these fire codes, standards and regulations
    When purchasing consumables for product development, make sure you ask your supplier if the fiber, fabric or related material meets fire codes and standards. Each printing application on woven and non-woven materials has to meet flame-retardant and flammability standards, each with its own testing procedures. If you are not supplied with flame retardant materials, you will need to treat your products before or after the printing process, and you are required to pass fire standard tests. These tests require must be completed on certified flammability testing equipment and conducted by a qualified operator. If your company chooses an independent testing laboratory, make sure they are recognized by agencies such as the CPSC, California’s state fire marshal, California’s Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation and the Federal Aviation Administration. Stay updated with city, state, national and international regulatory experts and fire marshals. For example, if you print fabrics and related materials for an exhibit booth at Chicago’s convention facility McCormick Place, you must pass the NFPA 701 fire prevention code and display a flame-retardant certificate at the show or be prepared for on-site testing. This applies to backdrops, dust and table covers, drapes and similar fabrics, display boxes, corrugated cardboard, wood and wood byproducts, polyurethane foam and plastic.

    Research continues on new formulations to improve a material’s fire-retardant behavior. Two principal researchers at the Bolton Fire Materials Laboratory, Professors Richard Hull and Baljinder Kandola, are studying the interaction of flame retardants with the burning process, char analysis and polymer chain reactions to improve fire safety. The Bolton Institute (United Kingdom), Detroit Testing Laboratory (Michigan), GovMark (New York), Intertek (New Jersey), SGS (California), Southwest Research Institute (Texas) and other approved testing laboratories collaborate with scientists, manufacturers and regulators to improve flame retardancy of fabrics and other materials.

    Be aware of claims such as “fire proof” and “flame proof” to describe materials or products. These terms are inaccurate and should not be used because there are no products that meet these claims. We have provided several Web sites for your research on fire-retardant materials, fire code and regulations. Keep in mind, California’s state fire marshal has one of the most stringent fire codes and regulations, and is used as an international model. See Web site links (side bar) for California-approved, flame-retardant fabric suppliers and flame-retardant chemical suppliers.


    Approved Testing Laboratories

    Flame Retardant Fabric Suppliers and Chemical Suppliers

    Fabric Terminology

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, 3rd Quarter 2006 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2006 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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