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A Century of Fire Standards

The History of Committee E05, 1904-2004

by John R. Hall, Jr.

On Feb. 7, 1904, Baltimore suffered direct fire losses of $50 million — worth roughly $1 billion today — in the third costliest U.S. fire to date.

By spotlighting the continuing problem of building-to-building fire spread, the Baltimore conflagration led to a new committee in the eight-year-old ASTM, initially designated Committee P on Fireproofing Materials.

By 1910, it was Committee C-5, which would be its name for a third of a century. Its early history is an important part of the history of tests for fire resistance. (1,2)

As high-rise buildings grew taller in the late 19th century, there was a move to skeleton frame construction using iron columns, a technology developed in the 1880s. Meanwhile, flooring was shifting from heavier to lighter brick and other lightweight materials like terra cotta.

Through the 1890s, evaluation of the fire performance of these new technologies was largely limited to post-mortems after a major fire. Serious testing work began in Germany in the 1880s, then spread to the United Kingdom and the United States in the 1890s.

Woolson, Miller, and the First Quarter-Century
1904 - 1928

With the largest share of high-rise buildings in the United States, New York City became the early focus for the new technologies and testing related to them. In 1902, Professor Ira H. Woolson of Columbia University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering established the first permanent U.S. station for testing building component fire resistance.

Ira H. Woolson
Woolson’s laboratory focused not on basic research but on practical tests for the New York Bureau of Buildings, which wanted to reduce the need for subjective judgment. The first test standard was adopted by the New York Building Code in 1899.

Not surprisingly, then, when the members of ASTM’s new committee on fireproofing materials met to organize in 1905, they chose Woolson as chair and then-New York Superintendent of Buildings Rudolph H. Miller as secretary. Miller would serve as secretary until Woolson’s death, then serve as chair in his own right from 1927 to 1943.

In 1906, Committee P began assembling results of relevant U.S. and U.K. fire tests. By 1907, the committee had issued its first standard, C 2, Method of Test for Fireproof Floor Construction, unchanged in all essentials from Woolson’s specifications for New York City. A wall partition standard, C 3, followed in 1909. Meanwhile, other countries were lining up behind an alternative standard promulgated in 1903 by the British Fire Protection Committee.

In 1916 and 1917, ASTM and the National Fire Protection Association sponsored a series of meetings to revisit the standards. Participants came from several U.S. and Canadian professional societies, major organizations that were performing the existing tests — including Underwriters Laboratories, the National Bureau of Standards, and Factory Mutual — and the National Board of Fire Underwriters, to which Woolson had relocated.

The resulting Standard C 19 (later and now designated as E 119, Test Methods for Fire Tests of Building Construction and Materials) superseded standards C 2 and C 3 and also provided a standard time-temperature curve. The latter was already a feature of the British standard, but the ASTM standards mandated only a minimum threshold for the average temperature during the test. Compared to the British curve, the new ASTM curve had a steeper rise in temperature in the early fire stages.

Ingberg, Steiner, and the Second Quarter-Century
1929 - 1953

Simon H. Ingberg of the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) burst onto the scene as program manager of an unprecedented series of column fire tests at standard temperature. The 1917 to 1920 tests were conducted at UL, with participation by Factory Mutual, NBS, and the National Board of Fire Underwriters. With Ingberg as champion, these tests led directly to an expansion of standard C 19 to include columns in 1922.

The same year, Ingberg began the first systematic U.S. effort to measure fire temperatures, with the opening of the NBS test burnout building. Previously, Standard C 19 and its 1918 standard time-temperature curve had developed by consensus, without benefit of data on the temperatures achieved during a full burnout, even though burnout tests had already been conducted and reported in Europe.

Ingberg’s results, which began appearing in 1927, also provided better scientific underpinnings for the time-temperature curve approach. He showed that fire load governs fire intensity in a burnout and that the structural effects resulting from a fire of a given intensity will be roughly the same, regardless of other variations (e.g., temperature) during the course of the fire. Therefore, use of a constant temperature, while unrealistic in itself, captured the fire characteristics that mattered and their impact on the outcomes of interest.

By 1933, Ingberg had enough new knowledge to support the first major revision to standard C 19 since 1918. He also began his tenure as the second person to chair Subcommittee C-5-I, the antecedent to today’s E05.11 on Fire Resistance.

In 1940, Ingberg became the first person to serve as vice chair of Committee C-5. He ascended to the post of chair in 1944, the first chair since Woolson and Miller.

In 1963, Ingberg became only the second person sponsored by Committee E05 for the Award of Merit. In 1965, he and A.L. Brown of Factory Mutual became the first honorary members of Committee E05.

In 1970, the S.H. Ingberg Award was established to honor others who would do what Ingberg himself did so well for so long — develop new science and use it to create important new standards. In 1971, at age 93, Ingberg died, active to the end.

The other major innovation in the second quarter-century of Committee E05 was standard E 84, Test Method for Surface Burning Characteristics of Building Materials, which was universally, if unofficially, known as the “tunnel test” or the “Steiner tunnel test” after the test method’s principal developer, Albert L. Steiner of Underwriters Laboratories. Standard E 84 was first adopted in 1950.

Robertson, FTC, E39, and the Third Quarter-Century
1954 - 1978

In 1958, Alexander F. Robertson of NBS became the first chairman of Subcommittee E05-X on Research. Robertson took Ingberg’s efforts to increase the scientific basis for ASTM E05 standards and raised them to a new level by creating a forum — periodic, often annual, seminars — to bring the best of research on ASTM E05 issues to the committee.

In 1969, Subcommittee E05-X delivered a wide-ranging set of recommendations on test methods and research studies. (3) In fewer than four pages, the subcommittee identified a list of assumptions in current tests that, the subcommittee asserted, had not been well substantiated, as well as variations in real-world fire conditions that were not being systematically incorporated, and alarming field observations that had not yet been addressed.

ASTM records give no indication of any immediate, substantive response to this catalog of flaws and gaps. But a different source was about to weigh in with criticisms impossible to ignore.

In 1974 the U.S. Federal Trade Commission issued a consent order, (4) including the following: “To cease using, or permitting or acquiescing in the use of ASTM D 1692 and ASTM E 84, or any other small scale test standards, in the marketing of plastics products.”

The order found implied or stated claims through such phrases as “non-burning” and “self-extinguishing,” with ASTM standard tests as the cited basis for the claims.

The year before, Committee E05 had held two special meetings, one directly on the FTC complaint and the other on the 1973 ASTM Policy Defining Fire Hazard Standards, Limiting the Scope of Properties—Description Standards, and Establishing a Committee on Fire Hazard Standards, usually referred to as the ASTM Fire Policy for short.

The referenced new committee would be Committee E39, established in 1973, filled with officers in 1976, and dissolved by merger into Committee E05, now with the broader name of “Fire Standards,” in 1978.

In the 1973 meetings, Committee E05 had advised the ASTM board of directors that “none of the E-5 fire tests ... individually assess the fire hazard of materials.” (5) They further advised that only an analysis of relevant test results under relevant conditions could determine fire hazard.

The Fire Policy drew a clear line between fire-test-performance characteristics, the results of small-scale tests of Committee E05, and the fire hazard or risk associated with materials, products, or assemblies, which were recognized as dependent upon the manner and environment of use.

An Explosion of Standards and the Fourth Quarter-Century
1979 - 2003

Forty of the 49 standards maintained today by Committee E05 were first issued in the last quarter-century. More standards were issued in just the last four years (2000-2003) than in the first 75 years of the committee.

The latest quarter-century has not been dominated by one or two giants but has become a broad-based effort by a team.

Some of the new standards represent the newest response to the committee’s traditional concerns. New standards apply the E 119 technique to new components, including standards E 814, Test Method for Fire Tests of Through-Penetration Fire Stops; E 1725, Test Methods for Fire Tests of Fire-Resistive Barrier Systems for Electrical System Components; and E 1966, Test Method for Fire-Resistive Joint Systems. There is still a task group devoted to improvements in standard E 84.

Most new standards, however, represent new concerns — either fire performance characteristics other than fire resistance and fire endurance, or methods necessary to the calculation of fire hazard or fire risk.

Examples of the former include tests for resistance to ignition by cigarettes, such as standards E 1352, Test Method for Cigarette Ignition Resistance of Mock-Up Upholstered Furniture Assemblies, and E 1353, Test Methods for Cigarette Ignition Resistance of Components of Upholstered Furniture, on furniture composites and upholstered furniture components. There is even a standard for testing the strength of cigarettes as an ignition source, which is the new standard E 2187, Test Method for Measuring the Ignition Strength of Cigarettes. Flaming ignition of upholstered furniture or mattresses is addressed by standards E 1537, Test Method for Fire Testing of Upholstered Furniture; E 1590, Test Method for Fire Testing of Mattresses; and E 1822, Test Method for Fire Testing of Stacked Chairs.

Smoke and toxicity have been added to the list of important fire characteristics with associated standard tests. These include standards E 662, Test Method for Specific Optical Density of Smoke Generated by Solid Materials; E 1995, Test Method for Measurement of Smoke Obscuration Using a Conical Radiant Source in a Single Closed Chamber, With the Test Specimen Oriented Horizontally; E 800, Guide for Measurement of Gases Present or Generated During Fires; and E 1678, Test Method for Measuring Smoke Toxicity for Use in Fire Hazard Analysis.

Perhaps the most dramatic change in the fire testing landscape has been the emergence of tests for heat release. Standard E 906, Test Method for Heat and Visible Smoke Release Rates for Materials and Products, the so-called Ohio State University calorimeter, came first, followed by the most widely used test, standard E 1354, Test Method for Heat and Visible Smoke Release Rates for Materials and Products Using an Oxygen Consumption Calorimeter, the so-called cone calorimeter. Standard E 1623, Test Method for Determination of Fire and Thermal Parameters of Materials, Products, and Systems Using an Intermediate Scale Calorimeter (ICAL), and standard E 2067, Practice for Full-Scale Oxygen Consumption Calorimetry Fire Tests, were also developed at this time.

Tests that are not subject to the scale limitations of traditional bench-scale tests, and are therefore also useful for fire safety engineering calculations, include standard E 2257, Test Method for Room Fire Test of Wall and Ceiling Materials and Assemblies.

Four standards exist on different aspects of deterministic fire effects modeling. They are standards E 1355, Guide for Evaluating the Predictive Capability of Deterministic Fire Models; E 1472, Guide for Documenting Computer Software for Fire Models; E 1591, Guide for Obtaining Data for Deterministic Fire Models; and E 1895, Guide for Determining Uses and Limitations of Deterministic Fire Models. Standards for fire hazard assessment are E 1546, Guide for Development of Fire-Hazard-Assessment Standards, and E 1776, Guide for Development of Fire-Risk-Assessment Standards.

While it is difficult to see the influence of the FTC consent order in the form of specific new standards, every small-scale test is on trial until or unless it has been demonstrated to be a valid reflection of fire behavior in full scale.

Today, it seems clear that the priorities of Committee E05 are well directed toward its goals — providing the evaluation tools that markets require in order to serve the cause of safety with minimal disruption to the other desirable characteristics of products.

From Woolson’s leadership on the needs of fire safety for a new generation of tall buildings to the innovation and leadership of nearly 500 volunteers today on the needs of fire safety for a new generation of products of all types, ASTM Committee E05 has identified and met the challenges within its scope. //


1. Vytenis Babrauskas and Robert Brady Williamson, “The Historical Basis of Fire Resistance Testing — Parts I and II,” Fire Technology, Volume 14, 1978, pp. 184-194 and 304-316.
2 A.F. Robertson, “Roots and History of Committee E-5,” ASTM Standardization News, December 1981, pp. 14-20.
3 “Test Methods and Research Studies Recommended by E-5 Subcommittee X,” ASTM Proceedings, Volume 69, 1969, Committee Reports, pp. 394-397.
4 Consent Order, Federal Trade Commission Act, Docket C-2596, November 4, 1974, Paragraph 22(a).
5 “Report of Committee E-5 on Fire Tests of Materials and Construction,” ASTM Proceedings, Volume 74, 1974, Committee Reports, p. 385.

Copyright 2004, ASTM International

John R. Hall, Jr., is assistant vice president for fire analysis and research at the National Fire Protection Association, where he has worked for 20 years on fire safety work involving statistics, risk assessment, and fire service management. For most of that time, he has served as NFPA representative to ASTM Committee E05. Hall is also a fellow of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences, convenor of Working Group 10 on Fire Risk Assessment of ISO TC92 SC4, and a member of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers task group on Fire Risk Assessment.