Thousands of fire and smoke dampers have never been tested since they were first installed in ventilation systems all over the country. This is a huge life safety issue that is largely hidden from the public – at least it was until Channel 4 News revealed that half of the dampers installed in a major PFI hospital in Birmingham had never been checked.
Many dampers have been installed for decades, but because they have never been checked there is often no way of knowing if they will operate when called upon to reduce the risk of potentially deadly fire, smoke and fumes being spread throughout a building. More obvious parts of the fire protection system, such as alarms; smoke detectors; extinguishers; and fire doors, are regularly checked because they are visible.
Dampers are hidden away and often forgotten – even by fire officers carrying out risk assessments. Difficulty in gaining access to the ventilation ductwork; disruption to the operation of the building; cost; and the awkwardness of opening and closing the dampers by hand all combine to leave the majority of mechanical, spring-operated dampers ‘out of sight out of mind’.
Remotely Motorised dampers are easier to test because they can be electrically linked to the fire alarm and ventilation systems. Testing can, therefore, be carried out remotely and automatically as part of a wider maintenance regime, ensuring reliable operation without disruption to the building occupants. These more sophisticated dampers are already used as standard in a number of European countries, but are still the exception rather than the rule in the UK. Curtain fire dampers remain the most regularly specified type, by far, and have been used in UK buildings since the 1930s. They account for around 80% of all fire dampers fitted in new and existing buildings. They depend on a bi-metal, fusible link activating the damper mechanism when the temperature in the ductwork reaches 72°C, and have a spring mechanism that releases the damper blades to block the passage of the fire.
The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (RRO), which came into force in 2006, has highlighted this potential Achilles’ heel in many buildings. Under the Order a ‘responsible person’ must ensure that all components of the fire safety system are kept in “efficient working order” and “good repair”. They must carry out a fire safety risk assessment and then put a planned maintenance regime in place. Failure to meet the requirements of the RRO can lead to fines of up to £10,000 and two years in prison for the designated responsible person. Prohibition notices can close a business down if the local fire officer is not satisfied that the right measures, including regular testing and maintenance of all system parts, are in place. Organisations can also be prosecuted under Corporate Manslaughter law if they are deemed to have failed to adequately protect employees and visitors to their building in the event of a fire.
The implications of a poorly controlled fire in a hospital, like Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth II, which was the subject of the Channel 4 investigation, don’t really bear thinking about. The British Standard BS 9999 – the code of practice for Fire Safety in the Design, Management and Use of Buildings – covers routine inspection and maintenance of ventilation and air conditioning ductwork. It stipulates that all fire dampers be tested by a “competent person” at regular intervals “not exceeding two years” and should be replaced immediately if any fault is found. Spring-operated dampers should be tested every year, according to the standard, and even more frequently if they are installed in areas of heavy dust contamination.
Unfortunately, pressure on maintenance budgets means this legal requirement is often overlooked. Manual testing involves a service engineer physically closing the damper and then having to reset it back into an open position. Getting into the correct position to carry out a test may require the use of a safe working platform, personal protection equipment, and safety harnesses. It could also lead to the removal of ceiling tiles with the associated dust and debris. This creates disruption if the building is occupied so, in many cases, it can only be carried out at weekends or overnight. Reluctant Many buildings have hundreds of curtain type fire dampers installed so the task is considerable – hence the fact it is rarely done. In a large, complex commercial building it can be hugely disruptive and expensive to manually test dampers. Often maintenance people have to work through the night or at weekends to avoid disrupting the operation of the building they will also be using a considerable amount of safety equipment – all reasons why building owners are reluctant to act However, despite the difficulties, this is an absolutely essential maintenance task and building owners – and more importantly their insurance providers – are becoming more aware of their legal responsibilities and the potential penalties they face.
The problem is setting up a strategy for tackling the issue and ensuring all the bases are covered.
The first task is to establish where each damper is; then the FM team must make sure they are all working properly and can be accessed for maintenance on a regular and ongoing basis. There should be a record of each damper being drop tested – not just a report that notes a damper is present – because, if it hasn’t been tested, how do you know if it will work in a fire? A new Technical Bulletin produced by the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) outlines the key issues and gives building managers an extremely useful checklist. This very timely piece of guidance directs maintenance teams towards the requirements of the British Standard 9999:2008 and outlines what tasks must be completed. The bulletin also references the guidelines introduced by the Department of Health that encourage regular testing of fire dampers. In part B of Health technical memorandum 03-01, fire dampers are required to be tested and maintained annually in line with manufacturers’ instructions.
Insurance firms are ramping up the pressure on building owners to carry out comprehensive fire safety checks. So, as well as feeling the ‘long arm of the law’ if they fail to do what is necessary; they will also have a hard time getting insurance claims honoured if it can be proved that the fire was made worse by being able to spread unimpeded through the building due to untested fire and/or smoke dampers.