Commercial fire doors play an important role in the system of passive fire protection. During a fire, they protect human life and property from devastation and they provide emergency services with much-needed extra time.
So, what is passive fire protection? And how do fire doors play their part?
What is passive fire protection?
Passive fire protection (PFP) sits alongside active fire protection as two systems for protecting people and property from fire using specialist equipment. As the name suggests, passive fire protection operates in a way which isn’t visible or requires activation. Fire doors, for example, don’t change state when a fire breaks out.
Active fire protection is the exact opposite. Equipment such as sprinklers, alarms and extinguishers form part of your active fire protection arsenal. They require activation (usually the trigger of smoke or heat) and change state when operational.
There is one exception to this ‘rule’ which is the material used in fire doors to protect against smoke and heat ingress. Intumescent material expands when exposed to heat to create a seal around a door or filling voids and cavities in walls and ceilings.
How does passive fire protection protect us?
During everyday conditions, all elements of your PFP are dormant. Your commercial fire doors are, in fact, probably viewed by people in your building as ‘just doors’. That’s not always a good thing (more on that later).
However, during a fire, these objects which we tend to ignore for the most part, take on a huge life-saving significance. A fire door, correctly constructed and certified, will protect you from fire and smoke for a specified period of time (usually 30 minutes, in some situations up to 60 minutes).
In that timeframe, you can either make your way safely out of the building, or, where a ‘stay put’ policy is in place, you can wait for emergency services to arrive and evacuate the building.
What is compartmentation?
Current UK building regulations state that all buildings must be split into compartments as it’s recognised that compartmentation is an essential part of passive fire protection. Imagine a compartment as a box contained by walls, floors and doors (all PFP elements). Everything surrounding the compartment must be fire ‘rated’ according to fire safety standards.
In addition, whenever there is an aperture or a joint for plumbing or electrical services to pass through, you must ensure fire stopping products are used (like the intumescent material we mentioned earlier.)
This guidance defines a fire stop as: ‘A seal provided to close an imperfection of fit or design tolerance between elements or components, to restrict the passage of fire and smoke.
There’s no doubt that effective compartmentation saves lives. We know that sub-dividing buildings into compartments slows down the spread of smoke and fire.
Saving lives with compartmentation
There are many benefits to human life from splitting a building into compartments. Getting it right depends on several factors: the building’s use, its size, its fire load (if fire breaks out, how severe might it be?) and any existing fire-fighting capabilities such as sprinkler systems.
In summary, compartmentation prevents the rapid spread of fire which then limits danger to life and property.
However, we see many examples of poorly maintained compartmentation. In these cases, the intended effect of saving lives is severely compromised.
Remember, the walls and floors of a compartment are acting as a complete barrier to fire ingress and must be able to resist fire – here’s guidance on how to achieve this. Any other openings must also have similar fire resistance. Danger points occur where building work has taken place after a compartment is constructed. Tradesmen may not be aware of the need for fire resistance or do an incomplete job leaving gaps around new pipework, sockets and ducts.
Fire doors: are they always fit for purpose?
The most significant fire-related tragedy of recent times has shone a light on the vulnerability lurking behind many commercial fire doors in use today. Two years ago, the fire at Grenfell shocked the world with its intensity and speed at which it coursed through the tower block. It soon became apparent that there were serious flaws with the fire protection systems in place at Grenfell (if there indeed were any). How could a fire spread so quickly in a building with a ‘stay put’ policy? The events that unfolded made a mockery of the 30-minute fire rating of most commercial fire doors in the UK.
Shortly after the fire, a spokesperson for the local council said that a question mark hung over the effectiveness of the fire doors in the building. In subsequent tests, the doors failed the 30-minute test despite being marketed as such.
In the months following the Grenfell fire, which are now turning into years, the government has made repeated promises to address the problem. Let’s not forget this was not isolated to Grenfell. It extends across the UK with faulty fire doors still in use in social housing tower blocks up and down the country. Unfortunately, many buildings remain untouched for bureaucratic reasons. Local councils are responsible for the upgrade works; some cannot afford the extensive replacement programmes and fear they will not be compensated, either by the government or the private companies responsible for manufacturing the doors originally.
How do I ensure my fire doors are always fit for purpose?
For those of us not reliant on central or local government to replace faulty fire doors, there is plenty we can do to ensure our fire doors are fit for purpose.
As the responsible person, you’re legally obliged to install and maintain a suitable fire door. With such controversy surrounding fire door manufacturers, we appreciate how confusing the landscape can feel. Who can you trust? The British Woodworking Federation Group (the creators of Fire Door Safety Week) is a good place to start. Membership of their alliance is only open to certain manufacturing companies. The vision for the alliance is that every fire door (or doorset) sold in the UK meets required standards.
British safety standards recommend regular fire door inspections at least every six months. Those in high-use buildings, such as office blocks, schools and hospitals, may need more regular checks. Your fire risk assessor or fire safety supplier can advise you. But remember, it’s up to the responsible person to be able to prove, if asked, that they’ve got an adequate inspection and maintenance schedule in place.
We regularly inspect and maintain fire doors for our customers helping them to stay on the right side of the law – and keep people safe. Contact us today to find out more.