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Looking for closure

28 May 2022

FIRE DOORS are arguably the most important – and most effective – form of passive fire protection within a building. Ensuring that they’re in good working order and well maintained can make all the difference between a safe evacuation procedure and not evacuating at all, as Karen Byard explains.

In the event of a fire outbreak, fire doors could literally be the difference between life and death. They are designed to work with other passive fire and active fire protection elements in order to safeguard life and assist in the provision of a safe means of escape. Undoubtedly, fire doors play a vital role in realising both of those scenarios.

When fitted and maintained correctly, fire doors can provide a vital barrier against fire and smoke. Such doors work to compartmentalise rooms or sections of a building such that the fire cannot spread. The overriding intent of their installation is to provide building occupants with enough time to evacuate or otherwise move safely to another part of the premises.

In view of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, property owners are required by law to adequately maintain all of the fire doors installed within their premises.

Life-saving protection

When it comes to everyday use, fire doors should primarily operate as ‘just a door’. Hopefully, most fire doors will only ever work in this way, but since the outbreak of any given fire can never be predicted, those fire doors installed at the premises must be able to protect lives at any given moment.

It’s recommended that fire doors are designed, developed and provided by an accredited third party manufacturer. Third party certification means that the fire doors have been tested appropriately and are produced consistently to a high standard. Approved doors are fitted with a certification label or coloured plugs that indicate the standard to which they’ve been manufactured.

Fire doors must undergo fire resistance testing and meet the required timeline for such resistance, which is usually a period of 30 or 60 minutes.

Any ironmongery employed must comply with the relevant British Standard and be fitted as specified by the fire door’s test procedure evidence. Hinges should not be painted and should be rebated into the door and frame, while screws should be fitted in all of the screw holes.

Fire doors must also be fitted with the appropriate seals. These seals will expand under heat and fill the permitted gaps between the door leaf and the frame. Fire doors that are required to protect against the passage of fire and smoke will be fitted with intumescent and cold smoke seals. A fire door should have one type of seal and not a mixture of seals on door edges because intumescent strips can react at different times, which may serve to force the door open. Care must be taken not to damage the rubber fin or brush part of the seal. If damaged, smoke would be able to penetrate the protected space.

Data sheets

The size of the gap permitted between the door leaf and the frame is extremely important. The acceptable allowance should be documented on the door leaf manufacturer’s data sheets. General guidance here is that the gap should be between 2 mm and 4 mm along the two long edges and across the top of the door leaf. The door frame is just as important as the door and should not be altered in any way.

It stands to reason that a fire door will not provide life-saving protection unless all of the components are fitted correctly and maintained regularly. Sadly, we see (and read in the news) that some doors do fail. A detailed report issued last September by the Fire Door Inspection Scheme revealed that, regrettably, over three-quarters (ie 76%) of fire doors have failed inspections in recent years, with 30% of them being ‘condemned’ due to issues including excessive gaps around the doors themselves. Regular inspections will help to ensure that fire doors remain in safe working order and provide the required level of protection.

In my experience, the risk of fire developing in today’s buildings is relatively low. When completing a risk assessment, other forms of risk may well take precedence, but even in these instances, practical fire safety management – including regular fire door inspections – remains of paramount importance.

Fire safety legislation requires building owners to assume full responsibility for all aspects of fire safety. As part of the risk assessment process, they are required to ensure that the fire safety elements of the building structure meet current legislation. Although fire door maintenance inspections do form part of the fire risk assessment process at present, it’s worth noting here that dedicated inspections of fire doors are not yet mandatory.

Everyday use of any given fire door may well result in slight alterations to the door and its surroundings, which can negatively impact its performance in the event of a fire. This is particularly apparent in a range of business settings where these doors can become damaged by, for example, constant deliveries at the premises, the use of wheelchairs and even bulky pieces of equipment with which they may come into contact. Put simply, the more extensive the damage to the fire door, the less protection that door will provide.

Regular inspections

With that truism very much in mind, regular fire door inspections are so important. Indeed, these inspections should be an integral part of each business’ fire safety strategy, with the process deemed every bit as important as routine and essential testing of the batteries in smoke alarms.

The inspection procedure will identify any damage and recommend remedial work to bring the door(s) back up to the required standard. Missing intumescent and cold smoke seals from the top of a door would not be visible without an inspection and rectification work and would permit the passage of smoke and flames in a fire situation.

A competent individual with a sound knowledge of fire doors should be appointed to conduct any necessary remedial work. A competent person is someone with sufficient training, experience, qualifications and knowledge to implement and then look after fire safety measures in a building.

There have been instances where a competent individual is not used to fit and fix fire doors. This situation can be compared to asking a plumber to fit a fire alarm. The skill set is simply not compatible or appropriate, so the correct competent person needs to be selected to perform remedial work on fire doors. Using the wrong products or not carrying out a repair procedure correctly will almost inevitably affect the fire door’s level of fire resistance.

An unwise choice at this stage could mean that the completed work fails to meet the required standard. In that scenario, the fire doors would then be unable to provide the best possible protection for occupants.

What all of this ably demonstrates is the vital importance of employing the right person to complete any remedial work on fire doors, which then ensures that the host organisation adheres to legislation at all times.

Careful consideration

Sleeping environments such as NHS hospital wards, care homes or hotels present a specific suite of fire risk challenges that demand very careful consideration if the patients/occupants and their families are to benefit from the protection regimes they deserve.

Fire doors are inherently very heavy. This can prove to be particularly challenging in environments which are used by elderly people. The elderly can be frail and may struggle with opening such heavy doors. To address such accessibility issues while at the same time maintaining fire safety, organisations need to carefully consider the type of door and its ironmongery.

For example, in a care setting such as a hospital, there may be many instances where patients like to have the doors open. Therefore, if fire doors do not have a closer and the patient leaves the door open, that door becomes redundant in the event of a fire. Staff would then have to make their way around the ward, duly closing all the doors in the event of an alarm activation, which is not practical.

A solution for this specific issue would be door closers that close on activation of the fire alarm. These closers are interfaced with the fire alarm and allow doors to be open, but the fire doors will close automatically at any point when an alarm is activated.

Businesses often operate on limited budgets. On that basis, if fire doors on the premises should be irreparably damaged, the area or room becomes unavailable until they’re fixed. Installing impact protection to the leaves, frames or hold-backs can serve to safeguard fire doors. Although there’s an initial cost involved here, in the long run it’s such elements that often need replacing, not the entire fire door. In short, limited funding should not be a barrier to adequate passive fire protection.

Best Practice

Ensuring that fire doors are correctly installed, regularly checked and well maintained means that they’re ready to protect individuals within a given building should a fire occur. Regular fire training within an organisation will educate members of staff on Best Practice techniques when it comes to preventing fires and what to do if there’s a fire breakout at the premises.

There are also several tasks that staff can transact to make sure fire doors are always at their most effective. For example, fire doors should never be wedged open. Fires can start without warning and spread rapidly, so if a fire door is wedged open, it’s comparable to not having a fire door at all.

In addition to posing a risk to life, it’s also illegal for a fire door to be propped open. Equally, fire doors should always be easy to open and ready to use at any given moment.

Fire doors need to be clearly identifiable. They should not have any hooks, posters or flyers of any kind ,attached to them. At the end of the day these elements of the passive fire protection regime are vital pieces of fire safety equipment. They’re not notice boards or coat stands.

In addition to their role in holding back fire and smoke, fire doors are also vital escape routes. If access to the fire door is blocked, safe evacuation from the building is going to be severely compromised. Staff should ensure that all passageways and corridors leading to a fire door are kept clear at all times.

Many of us have witnessed first-hand precisely how fire doors have performed and stopped fires from spreading, affording occupants the valuable time they need in order to escape the premises safely. They are the most critical part of any building’s passive fire protection set-up. Therefore, it’s essential that they’re installed, inspected and maintained in the correct fashion.

Karen Byard MSc MIFireE DipFD is Fire Consultancy Technical and Validation Manager at Chubb Fire & Security (www.chubb.co.uk)