Fire Doors - Difference between life and death

“We have been completely happy with the service provided and would happily use Act again, in fact, we may well be in touch some time soon!”

– Residential Homeowner, Mr Tomlinson

It is no secret that fire doors are a vital part of a building’s passive fire protection system. Unfortunately, however, they are a building element that is often overlooked and undervalued.

Fire doors are required in almost every building. Part B covers the principal regulation and guidance, although other Building Regulations that address safety glazing, sound, ventilation, thermal performance, and accessibility may also need to be considered. But the sheer number of standards that might apply for even a single fire door can make a building control officer’s life very difficult, especially when contractors and installers have not done their job correctly.

In the construction phase, contractors are under pressure to meet tight budgets and all too often this results in ‘value engineering’, relating to substandard products being specified. Fire doors that have not been third-party certificated and not subjected to rigorous testing are unlikely to perform to as high a standard as those that have.

Installation is very often an issue too. Fire doorsets should come as a package with all components and instructions as required. Unfortunately, the instructions are often disregarded and the fire door sometimes altered, which greatly affects its effectiveness in compartmentalising fire and smoke.

Improving knowledge

The current number of prosecutions shows a frightening and continuing lack of awareness among building owners about their responsibilities

It was such failings that spurred the creation of the Fire Door Inspection Scheme (FDIS), after the British Woodworking Federation (BWF) Certifire and the Guild of Architectural Ironmongers recognised that something needed to be done to improve people’s knowledge and understanding of fire doors.

Diploma in Fire Doors was established as an online education programme for those looking to prove themselves competent in their specification, installation and maintenance. This represents a great step forward in improving fire safety knowledge. But the current number of prosecutions shows a frightening and continuing lack of awareness among building owners about their responsibilities under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRFSO). Substandard fire doors are very often just one of many signs of fire safety negligence.

This view is backed by the FDIS certificated fire door inspectors, who are now much in demand providing professional fire door inspection services to a wide range of clients across the UK and helping to spread the critical role fire doors play in saving lives and protecting property. FDIS inspectors can carry out on-site inspections of installed fire doors in existing or new buildings. This is an essential part of any fire risk assessment required by law to be undertaken by a building’s responsible person.

Court action

Analysis by FDIS of the RRFSO prosecutions last year suggested that ill-informed or negligent property owners are more likely than ever to be penalised. Courts are able to hand out unlimited fines and up to 2 years in prison. Research also shows that the most frequent fire door offenders in 2013 were small business owners renting accommodation above shops and landlords operating houses in multiple occupation. However, the largest fine issued in 2013 was £50,000 to the owner of Abbey College in Malvern, which the judge said had ‘woefully inadequate’ fire safety measures that included ‘non-functional fire doors in student sleeping areas’.

The longest custodial sanction was a 15-month suspended sentence handed to the owner of a takeaway in Croydon, found guilty of committing a string of fire safety offences on his premises including a lack of fire doors to the bedrooms on the first and second floors. Munawar Ahmed was also fined £40,000 and ordered to do 100 hours of unpaid work.

The most tragic result was the death of a 7-year-old boy in one of many properties without fire doors owned by a landlord in Kettering. The landlord was jailed for 9 months and ordered to pay £7,500 in costs.

Role of building control

Even a third-party certificated door will not perform as required if alterations have been made or the wrong components fitted

For a building control officer, the responsibility for fire doors comes at the beginning of a building’s life. As any of them would tell you, signing off a fire door that is not up to scratch is gambling with the lives of the building occupants.

Ideally a third-party certificated door will have been specified, which will be accompanied by a label giving details not only of the manufacturer but also a unique, traceable number. Initiatives such as the BWF-Certifire fire door and doorset scheme ensures that a fire door’s design, performance, manufacturing process and quality assurance is tested and verified from manufacture to installation. The building control officer can then check the certificate’s details to ensure that the fire door has been tested and to guarantee the fire door rating is correct.

However, even a third-party certificated door will not perform as required if alterations have been made or the wrong components have been fitted. Non-compatible components, such as door closers, hinges, locks and latches, could seriously hinder the fire door’s effectiveness in the event of a fire, as could fire doors that have been badly trimmed to fit. The gap between the frame and door leaf should be a consistent 3mm around the top and sides. Any more than this and the intumescent strips or smoke seals will fail in the event of a fire, with cold smoke posing huge risks to human lives.

Raising awareness

In 2013, FDIS created the character Theodore Firedoor to front a campaign to publicise the widespread problems of ill-fitting, damaged or poorly maintained fire doors. With a strong social media presence, the campaign encourages the sharing of fire door information across the various channels. A video of appalling fire door maintenance at a city hospital has so far attracted more than 2,000 views. Meanwhile, the worst example of fire door safety in the UK gains the dubious honour of being named Dodgy Fire Door of the Year.

Around 50 photos were submitted to the Theodore Firedoor Facebook page in 2013. That represents 50 wasted opportunities to save lives and protect property. As well as the ‘winning’ offender, 2 badly damaged fire doors in a hotel and a hospital stood out as the most shocking pictures to be received. Of course, the consequences of such poor fire door maintenance are much greater than being shamed on Facebook. Theodore Firedoor has made visible an epidemic of inadequate fire doors in all sorts of buildings and across all parts of the UK, and where such safety breaches occur, prosecutions are sure to follow. In the meantime, the campaign continues in its mission to publish more pictures of unsafe fire doors.

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