November 18th, 2010
By: Craig Rutledge
In the event of a building fire, the safety of the building’s occupants and the property is obtained by a combination of active and passive fire protection systems. An active fire protection system is designed to detect and suppress fire. The system triggers during a fire and activates via mechanical means or other sensors linked to items such as smoke detectors, fire sprinklers and fire extinguishers. The passive fire protection system is part of the building’s overall design and construction, such as designing stairways for rapid evacuation, or the utilization of fire-stopping material, fire and smoke dampers, as well as fire and smoke doors to compartmentalize a building to help confine the fire.
In the world of fire safety, active and passive fire protections do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they work in concert to help control the spread of the fire, maintain the integrity of the building, and most importantly, protect the building’s occupants. As with all systems to assure reliability, both active and passive fire protection systems require periodic maintenance. This is where a chasm exists between the two forms of fire protection. Whereas in most instances active fire protection systems are properly maintained, detailed maintenance records kept, consistently checked up on by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), and overall kept in good working order—the same cannot be said about passive fire protection systems. Two of the most overlooked items of a successful passive fire protection system that are either completely overlooked or only given a cursory look at best are fire and smoke dampers, and fire and smoke doors.
So why are dampers and doors so often overlooked? Resources—either in the form of human or financial, not enough time, lack of enforcement by the AHJ, or not knowing the current codes and standards for the maintenance of fire dampers and fire doors. But if there is a fire in your facility, will any of those reasons matter? Will the building owner, the building’s insurance carrier or building occupants care why the dampers or doors were not maintained up to the current codes and standards? Probably not. Take a closer look at the importance of fire and smoke dampers as well as fire doors and what the current codes say about their maintenance.
Fire and smoke dampers
“Out of sight, out of mind.” Probably no more apropos saying exists when it comes to the maintenance—or lack thereof—of fire and smoke dampers. Located inside ductwork, hidden in mechanical rooms, inside wall chases or above drop ceilings, fire and smoke dampers sit, waiting, only to operate in the event of a fire, to stop the passage of fire and smoke through your building’s heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system. But will the dampers work if called upon? If the dampers have not been inspected, who knows how long the dampers have sat idle? There are two certainties—one, when dampers work, they play a vital role and can save lives and property; two, dampers will not always work if not properly maintained.
In the early 1980s, two fires in Las Vegas hotels (the MGM and Hilton) led to more than 80 fatalities. Subsequent investigations by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) found that the fires—both initiating in the lower levels of the hotels, rising up floor-by-floor through the hotel’s ductwork—could have been contained to the lower floors had the fire dampers in the ductwork been operational. These events illustrated the great value dampers play in saving lives and were the genesis of NFPA’s standard for the testing and maintenance of fire and smoke dampers.
Aside from preventing the spread of fire through a building’s HVAC system, dampers are also a line of defense against terrorism. In the publication Protecting Building Environments from Airborne Chemical, Biological, or Radiological Attacks, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that smoke and fire dampers need to be functioning and states that dampers should be checked for “how well they seal and close.” IFMA’s report Addressing the Threat of Terrorism: Guidelines for Prevention and Response discusses the high likelihood of a fire during a terrorist attack and specifically addresses the importance of proper installation and regular maintenance of smoke and fire dampers to help combat this threat.
However, if not properly maintained, the probability of a damper functioning in the event of a fire drops dramatically. The inspection data collected during facility inspections tells the story—buildings that regularly inspect their fire and smoke dampers have a dramatically lower failure rate.
Due to the fact that The Joint Commission and other state organizations have strictly enforced the damper inspection code in healthcare occupancies, hospitals have performed the damper inspections for numerous years. Outside of health care, the enforcement of the damper inspection code has been far less stringent and in turn, so have the inspections. The result of this variation in testing frequency is vast differences in failure rates between health care and non-health care facilities. Based on recorded data, health care facilities average approximately a 10 percent failure rate for their fire and smoke dampers, whereas in non-health care facilities the data shows that the failure rate jumps to 35 percent. While this is an average and some facilities are around 10 percent, this means there are facilities hovering around a 50 percent failure rate. How can this be? Smoke dampers with electric motors that have sat idle for years and years eventually burn out if never inspected. Dampers that have rusted open simply from lack of attention, or in some instances, the dampers were never installed correctly in the first place.
How do you lower your risk of failure? A good first step is the follow the NFPA standard for testing and maintenance of fire and smoke dampers. The current code for fire dampers is located in NFPA 80 and for smoke dampers in NFPA 105. The dampers in non-health care occupancies reads virtually identical for fire and smoke dampers: “Each damper needs to be inspected one year after installation. Test and inspection then needs to be completed in all buildings every four years.” The codes provide greater details regarding testing methods and record keeping, but the important first step for facility managers is to inspect the dampers because dampers matter and they can fail.
Fire and smoke doors
Unlike dampers, the issue with fire and smoke doors isn’t “out of sight, out of mind.” Fire doors are clearly visible in buildings and are used on a constant and daily basis. Oftentimes there is a maintenance plan in place for fire doors. The question is: Will they truly serve their purpose in the event of a fire? Is the maintenance inspection evaluating all the components of not just the door but the entire fire assembly (door, frame, hinges, pivots, closers, etc.)?
The latest editions of NFPA 80 (2007 Edition) and NFPA 101 (2009 Edition) implemented stricter inspection guidelines for fire doors to ensure proper operation in the event of a fire. As with dampers, fire doors are an essential component of passive fire protection and are necessary to maintain the integrity of a fire barrier. The purpose of fire doors is to close automatically and prevent the passage of fire and smoke from one side of the door to the other. However, many of the maintenance programs currently in place are simply to make sure the door will close. While closure of the door is vital, closure alone does not ensure proper operation. This is why the NFPA put into force the new detailed door inspection guidelines. The code looks at 11 points, which the Door Hardware Institute has further broken down into more than 90 points detailing virtually every aspect of the fire door assembly for inspection. The new inspection code looks in detail at door clearances, clearance limits of gaps, improper field modifications, door coordinators, door closers, gasketing, glazing, vision light frames, hinges, auxiliary hardware and more.
While companies have had a basic door inspection program in place which showed their fire doors were upwards of 80 to 90 percent compliant, they are now finding that their fire doors are actually closer to only 25 to 50 percent compliant. This does not mean that a large majority of the fire doors need to be replaced. A more common non-compliance issue is improper gaps—in many cases from doors that were never hung correctly in the first place. But these gaps between the door and the floor, or the door and the frame, are legitimate problems. Gaps can allow smoke and heat to enter through the door during a fire, allowing the smoke to penetrate the barrier and move throughout the building. Regardless of the reason for non-compliance, the importance of having compliant, functioning fire and smoke doors is critical.
Passive fire protection—every component matters
For a team to be successful, it must have both a good offense and a good defense. Just like a building’s fire protection system, it not only must have a solid offense—with its active fire protection system in place—but also an effective defense with its passive fire protection system. As with any system, passive fire protection is only effective if every component is working. For every component to work, it must be properly maintained. Failure to do so not only compromises that one component but renders the entire system useless. In order to win the battle against fire, your building’s fire dampers and fire doors must work safely and efficiently. The inspection of the dampers and doors is the first step in ensuring their success during a fire.
December 11th, 2008
There is no doubt that the way we looked at the world on September 10, 2001 was changed dramatically with the events of the following day. September 11th changed the way we view national security, global politics, and travel. For those of us in fire safety, facilities management, and code enforcement, it triggered a paradigm sift that effects everything we do today in our daily operations.
As a company that focuses on fire and smoke damper inspections in commercial facilities throughout the United States, our role has evolved into more than just fire safety, and compliance. Our responsibility has expanded into providing an additional barrier in the event of a terrorist attack.
The attack at the World Trade Center in New York City brought into focus the importance of operable fire and smoke dampers in the event of a terrorist attack. Nearly 3,000 civilians and firefighters lost their lives when both towers became engulfed in smoke and flames. The United States Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology investigated the World Trade Center disaster and found that had there been operable fire and smoke dampers in the two towers, they “would have acted to slow the development of hazardous conditions on the uppermost floors of the building” in tower one and two, and as a result provided occupants more time to flee the building. Those findings alone exemplify the need for working dampers.
One of the most efficient ways for smoke, fire, or an aerosolized biological agent to travel throughout a building is through the HVAC System. With this knowledge in hand many organizations have addressed the importance of working dampers in their terrorist prevention planning guidelines.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) in their publication “Protecting Building Environments from Airborne Chemical, Biological, or Radiological Attacks” states “While it is important to understand how the existing building systems function, the systems need to operate per building design.” The CDC goes on to provide a list of items to be considered in this evaluation/walk-thru of a building. The list includes items such as filtration, condition of the ductwork, and whether all dampers (including fire and smoke) are functioning, and to check the dampers for “how well they seal when closed”. The manual also notes that the responsiveness of the dampers in the event of a CBR (chemical, biological, radiological) attack is crucial.
Other groups such as the International Facility Managers Association (IFMA) in their “Addressing the Threat of Terrorism: Guidelines for Prevention and Response” discuss the high likelihood of a fire during a terrorist attack and specifically address the importance of proper installation and regular maintenance of fire and smoke dampers to help combat this threat.
In the July 2004 issue of Heating/Piping/Air Conditioning Engineering, Larry Felker wrote and article titled “Smoke-Control Systems and Homeland Security.” The article’s first line is “A building’s existing damper system can offer much in terms of protection in the event of an airborne chemical, biological, or radiological attack-or an accident that releases harmful airborne contaminants to the indoor environment.”
More groups have addressed the importance of operable fire and smoke dampers in the event of a CBR attack. However, the point is clear, that while fire and smoke dampers are only one component needed to protect building occupants during a terrorist attack – they are an extremely vital component. The question that now presents itself is “How do I maintain everything that I need to with limited time and limited staffing?”
Facility management staffs are spread so thin, that performing the needed maintenance is often impossible, particularly to do a detailed inspection. While some are fortunate to have adequate staffing, that is more the exception than the rule. Often times a contractor must step in to assist the facility’s staff, and provide the detailed inspection that is needed when dealing with life safety measures. Contractors can also provide third-party certification, something becoming more and more important to organizations from a liability standpoint.
We often hear our government officials state, and correctly so, that in the battle against terrorism that you have to be right 100% of the time. Just that one percent failure rate could be devastating. Our records indicate that the failure rate of dampers is approximately ten-percent. Even one failed damper can have serious consequences.
Is that one failed damper in an area where large groups of people congregate, such as a cafeteria during lunch hour? Is that failed damper positioned between floors, and in turn allows the contaminant to spread to additional floors where it could affect countless other people? Is that failed damper outside your office?
During the almost doomed Apollo 13 mission, lead flight director for Mission Control Gene Kranz, said to the ground crew at Houston’s Mission Control, “Failure is not an option.” The same holds true for those of us in the fire protection and building management field, when it comes to the safety of building occupants – “Failure is not an option.”
Craig Rutledge, is a partner of Life Safety Services, LLC (www.lifesafetyservices.com ), which specializes in the inspection of Fire and Smoke Dampers at facilities throughout the United States. Life Safety Services is a member of the NFPA, ASHE, IAQA, and NADCA. Rutledge is a Certified Indoor Environmentalist, NADCA Certified “Air Systems Cleaning Specialist”, and Certified Mold Remediator.” He can be reached at 1-888-675-4519, or by e-mail, email@example.com.
December 11th, 2008
Keeping buildings safe from the threat of fire is a responsibility we all share as fire code inspectors, fire and smoke damper inspectors, building owners, and facility managers. Our overriding goal should be the prevention of such horrific tragedies as the deadly fires at the MGM Grand hotel and casino in Las Vegas in 1980, and the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel and casino in 1981, where nearly 800 people were injured, and 85 were killed. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) stated in it’s report on the fire at the MGM Hotel that fire dampers “…did not completely close” and that as a result, “…products of combustion were distributed throughout the HVAC equipment … providing a method for the spread of smoke that may also have contributed to several fatalities.”
Another more recent tragedy is that of the World Trade Center in New York City where nearly 3,000 civilians and firefighters lost their lives when both towers became engulfed in smoke and flames. The United States Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology investigated the World Trade Center disaster and found that had there been operable fire and smoke dampers in the two towers, they “would have acted to slow the development of hazardous conditions on the uppermost floors of the building” in tower one and two, and as a result provided occupants more time to flee the building.
These are just a few examples of how tragic and devastating a large scale fire can be. Fires occur every day in the United States – fires that in some cases could be prevented, or at the very least lessened by properly working dampers.
Unfortunately, for the exception of hospitals that have the inspection of fire and smoke dampers enforced by groups such as the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO), many facilities do not inspect their dampers every four years as required by NFPA 90A. The reasons for this vary, but most often it is due to a lack of manpower in the building’s facilities management department. But for those of us in the business of fire prevention, we need to ask ourselves if this is in the best interest of safety.
Less frequent testing of dampers (or in some cases never testing them at all) will most certainly lead to higher failure rates, putting buildings in greater risk of extensive damage and potential loss of life should a fire occur.
Life Safety Services inspects more than 150 hospitals and other facilities a year and sees an approximate failure rate of 10% in dampers – and these are dampers that are inspected and maintained on a regular basis. If inspected less frequently, we are likely to see this rate increase. Even the top damper manufacturers, Ruskin, Greenheck and Nailor recommend testing and inspection of dampers every six months. According to these manufacturers, increased testing should extend the life of the damper and lessen the need to replace the dampers thus saving money and making buildings safer at the same time.
There are a number of reasons we should be working to maintain and even strengthen the current codes and standards used to inspect the fire dampers at facilities.
There is no question that properly installed, inspected and maintained fire dampers will save lives and money. If, as fire prevention personnel, we allow codes to be loosened, we will surely see the effects in a rise in fatalities and costs associated with building fires. The prevention of large scale fires is the only way to ensure the safety of those who live, work, heal and play in these facilities.
Craig Rutledge, is a partner of Life Safety Services, LLC, which specializes in the inspection of Fire and Smoke Dampers at facilities throughout the United States. Life Safety Services is a member of the NFPA, ASHE, IAQA, and NADCA. Rutledge is a Certified Indoor Environmentalist, NADCA Certified “Air Systems Cleaning Specialist”, and Certified Mold Remediator.” He can be reached at 1-888-675-4519, or by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
December 11th, 2008
By Craig Rutledge
Resources – there never seems to be enough of them. Financial resources, human resources, information resources, and we all lack the valuable resource of more time. Regardless of what industry you are in, the lack of resources is a challenge, especially for those in the facilities management profession. Let’s not forget that dealing with a myriad of daily issues and keeping tenants with different needs and personalities happy is a job in itself. Add to that the wealth of knowledge that’s required to do the job effectively it can be, I’m quite sure, nothing short of overwhelming. From HVAC Systems and Plumbing to Fire Safety and Security the range of education involved to do this job is phenomenal. My background is in fire safety and I know that the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Life Safety Code is over one thousand pages alone. I have always marveled at how much information a facility manager has to know to do his or her job.
With that said, one can see how I am not totally surprised to see how many facilities are not in compliance with NFPA’s Life Safety Code. Currently NFPA requires all non-healthcare facilities to have their Fire and Smoke dampers inspected every four (4) years and to verify that they are operational. What I have found is that those facilities that are not in compliance with this code typically fall into two categories: those who know the code exists but lack the resources to complete the inspections, and those who didn’t even know that NFPA requires the inspection of dampers.
I have found that for those who didn’t know about the code, there is certainly no cavalier attitude about having their dampers tested. Facilities Managers take being in compliance very seriously and are concerned that they were not aware of the existence of the code. However, as previously addressed, with the mountains of information that these individuals must retain in order to sufficiently perform their jobs duties, it’s understandable that one of the codes can slip through the cracks. Armed with the knowledge that all dampers need to be inspected as mandated by the NFPA, these individuals tend to move quickly towards compliance. After all, they know that safety is paramount and that keeping their building in compliance is part of their job.
The real issue here lies with those individuals who know about the code’s existence but simply lack the resources to complete the inspection, both in time and money. Facilities are perpetually running on a thin staff with widening demands and by adding the inspections to their work load it is close to impossible to find the time to complete the inspections thoroughly. Damper inspections are indeed labor intensive and not an easy undertaking when attention needs to be directed towards more time sensitive tasks such as HVAC or plumbing repairs. The answer here may be to search out a contractor that specializes in fire and smoke damper inspections to ease the burden on your staff and to ensure a quality final product.
The code to inspect the dampers was initially put into place because of the fires that occurred in Las Vegas hotels that led to over 80 fatalities. This number could have been substantially less had there been operable fire and smoke dampers. The United States Government also commissioned a study on the World Trade Center disaster and found that had the twin towers had more working smoke dampers the fumes that spread through the building would have been slowed down and possibly allowed for more people to escape that tragic day. In the wake of September 11th terrorism is certainly on the minds of today’s facilities manager and we should all be prepared. The dampers in your facility are there for a reason and ultimately the NFPA, ICC, and more and more insurance companies are requiring that you have proof that your dampers are inspected periodically to ensure that they are working properly.
While the inspection of Fire and Smoke Damper may be a cumbersome task for the facility’s staff, the act is far from an exercise in futility. Like all requirements in NFPA’s Life Safety Code it is there for a reason – not simply to be done so you can say “you are in compliance”, although that is one reason, but more importantly to minimize the risk from fire and ultimately product the individuals in your building that you are largely tasks to protect as a facility manager and security manager. So don’t let resources, or a lack thereof stand in the way of saving lives – inspect your fire and smoke dampers.
There is a quick lesson to be learned when it comes to compliancy in your building. The bottom line is that Fire and Smoke Dampers are as important as any other fire suppression device you put in your building. The goal here would be to understand the true meaning of NFPA’s Life Safety Code. These inspections are not to be completed simply because of “code” –their purpose is to minimize the danger to life from fire. Don’t let resources, or the lack there of, stand in the way of saving lives.
Craig Rutledge, is a partner of Life Safety Services, LLC, which specializes in the inspection of Fire and Smoke Dampers at facilities throughout the United States. Life Safety Services is a member of the NFPA, ASHE, IAQA, BOMA, and IFMA. Rutledge is a Certified Indoor Environmentalist, NADCA Certified “Air Systems Cleaning Specialist”, and Certified Mold Remediator.” He can be reached at 1-888-675-4519, or by e-mail, email@example.com