THE WOLF AT THE FIRE DOOR The terrible tragedy of the fire at Grenfell Tower has once again highlighted the importance of fire prevention design and products in our buildings, both private and public. Not least fire doors.
A correctly fitted and functioning fire door can help to suppress a fire by restricting the amount of oxygen available to it and will restrict the spread of fire - a closed fire-resisting door is designed to endure direct attack by fire for a specified period of time. This should slow and check the spread of fire through the building, gaining time for active fire protection resources to perform. It will also protect escape and continue to provide some protection for fire fighters entering the building.
In the immediate aftermath of the blaze, it has been reported that literally hundreds of fire doors are missing from tower blocks evacuated as a safety precaution in Camden alone. T doesn’t come as a surprise to the team at Astra Door Controls. Too often we see examples of fire doors which are either inappropriate or not fit for purpose, often as a result of lowest tender purchasing policies but often as a consequence of ignorance. And that doesn’t include the fire doors that are wedged and propped open by residents who find badly specified, fitted and maintained fire doors difficult and exasperating to deal with.
It seems that the lessons of the last major fire in a social housing setting in London at Lakanal House in 2009 have not been learned. In that case - where six people tragically died in a blaze in a 14-story block - missing, faulty, ineffective and propped-open fire doors played a major role in the spread of the fire.
After the trial of Southwark Council in the aftermath of the Lakanal House fire, Dan Daly, LFB’s assistant commissioner for fire safety, said: “All landlords, including large housing providers, such as councils and housing associations, have a clear responsibility under the law that their premises meet all fire safety requirements and are effectively maintained to provide protection in the event of a fire and keep their residents safe. We want them to take the opportunity provided by this court case to remind themselves of exactly what their fire safety responsibilities are under the law and to ensure that everyone in their premises is safe from the risk of fire.”
Since 2006, responsibility for maintaining fire and escape doors has been placed firmly with the building owners and operators since the introduction of the RRO (Regulatory Reform Order) which came into effect in October of that year. The RRO – which applies to England and Wales – covers the fire safety duties required to protect the “relevant person” – visitors, residents, staff etc. Building owners must show that they have carried out a risk assessment on their premises – and this includes ensuring that fire and escape doors have been specced and fitted correctly and, importantly, appropriately maintained. They must also be able to produce the documentation to show that the products are suitable for their application, proving that all parties have exercised due diligence in fulfilling their duty of care.
How to make fire doors comply with fire regulations while at the same time making them easy and safe to use – especially for users with limited mobility – has always been something of a vexed question for specifiers.
At Astra, we fit our concealed closers onto dozens of local authority and housing association projects every year and find that many social housing specifiers are really struggling to understand how to make their flat entrance doors work as fire doors, and comply with the Equality Act and Building Regs – let alone Secured by Design and PAS 24 compliant.
The strength or size (opening and closing force) of the door closer is critical to this. The closer must be strong enough to close the door and latch it reliably to comply with fire regulations. But it should not be so vicious that residents fight to open it – often getting so fed up with struggling to open their own front door that they will often attempt to disable the closer – leading to the door not complying with fire requirements. A vicious circle.
Lots of factors need to be taken into account when selecting the size of closer for a door – the weight of the door, the prevailing environmental conditions, air pressure, the use of the door, and, critically, the width of the door. We encounter many narrow doors with a Size 3 on flat entrances that are nigh-on impossible to open, especially for older and disabled tenants.
Door closers fall under the remit of three standards:
- EN1634 – 1: Fire resistance and smoke control tests for door, shutter and, openable window assemblies and elements of building hardware.
- BS EN 1154:1997 Building hardware. Controlled door closing devices.
- CE Marked under the Construction Products Regulations to EN 1154
Front doors to flats need to be fire-resisting and self-closing under Approved Document B (Fire Safety) and we are often asked if jamb mounted concealed closers are suitable for these situations. In short, the answer is yes! They can be fitted on 30- and 60-minute fire rated doors but the closer should be CE marked (where applicable) and fire tested in accordance with BSEN 1634-1:2000 and BSEN 1634-1:1999 and it goes without saying that they must conform to the fire test evidence for the door they are fitted on. In fact, a concealed closer can be used on any door with a light to medium traffic flow in many of the applications where overhead closers are used.
The current standard for fire doors (BS EN 1198) is very prescriptive, and, we believe, leading to a great deal of confusion for specifiers. It states that, on fire doors, a size 3 closer must be used, regardless of the size of the door. But in real life settings, it means that many doors are not actually complying with UK Building Regulations. It is all very well to carry out torque force calculations in laboratory conditions on 1m wide doors, those of us working in the field know that the outcome of using a size three closer on a narrower door of 750mm for example, is very different. A size 3 closer exerts an opening force of 30N on a metre-wide door, but on 750mm door that increases to 40N on the leading edge. In many cases it is nigh on impossible to achieve reasonable opening forces using a size 3 closer on a narrower door and a much more sensible – and compliant – option would be to use a correctly adjusted size 1 or 2 closer.
Using a size 3 closer, regardless of conditions can result in a door that is very difficult to open, especially if it is not opened at the leading edge as is so often the case when people are struggling with shopping, buggies, wheelchairs or walking aids. And these doors are either being rejected by Building Control Officers; they are also being altered to power down the closer, negating CE Marks and making the door intrinsically unsafe. Very few specifiers seem to realise that powering down a size 3, CE marked overhead closer makes the CE Mark null and void and potentially puts them in a risky situation regarding liability should the worst happen.
On a daily basis, we are helping specifiers to use common sense and select the correct size closer for the actual doors being used every day by actual people. We often supply sample closers on housing projects so that tenants can get a real sense of how their door will work, not on an architect’s drawing. After all, the door is one of the very few working parts of a building. And if the entrance door fails, the whole building fails.
As the enquiries into this terrible tragedy at Grenfell Tower progress, the role that fire doors did or did not play in the fire will doubtless emerge and the importance of correctly specified, installed and maintained fire doors in saving lives will, without question, once more become apparent.